Safety Second?

Posted by on Jan 15, 2009


This issue has never been more important to me.

Alec Couros recently wrote a post about a very disturbing experience he had with someone viewing pictures of his daughter on Flickr.  If you haven’t read it yet, it’s an excellent piece, and I’d strongly recommend you read it first before proceeding here.

The story absolutely sickens and saddens me.  It also gives me pause to consider how I want to handle the online presence of my baby who is mere weeks away from entering this world.  How will I best protect my child, while still giving him or her the opportunity to engage in community and collaboration in a world growing ever smaller and more connected?

I can tell you, it certainly won’t be the way some of those who expressed their opinions in the comments of Alec’s blog would like for me to proceed.  I’m quite frankly dumbfounded at several of the comments.  For example, Stephen Downes writes:

“The thing is, you can’t hide.
The threat to children is as great – indeed, greater – from close family and friends as it is from strangers.
Creating a climate of fear in which everyone hides their kids simply creates a safe haven for those people, and a
prison for their children.
Openness is not the enemy.
Openness is what protects these kids.
Openness is what draws people out into the open, like those Flickr photo collectors (you can be sure they are
known to police, or at least, that they should be).
And openness is what allows you – and others – to talk to your kids, to give them the tools to protect them from
danger, to given them the knowledge and the empowerment to stand up to those people whether they are total
strangers or close family.
That’s my view, at least.”

With all due respect, Stephen, I don’t call protecting my child “hiding”.  I call it using wise judgement.  Now please understand me, I’m an ardent advocate for openness and maintaining an online presence.  My child will certainly interact with others and learn from the world online.  That doesn’t mean, however, that I blindly and blithely let him or her walk unfettered in a world where Alec’s experience is one of the more mild abuses that occurs.

What about those who do suffer abuse as a direct result of what we’re discussing here?  If it were my child, would I look him or her square in the eyes and say, “I’m so sorry honey, but I had to do it.  It was for the cause of openness”?  Is it worth the risk?  Would I put them right back out there to get exploited again if it did happen?

It simply doesn’t make sense.  Yes, we can live in a world of openness, but we can also use intelligent discretion as well.  I do wonder if those who are so vehemently advocating for openness also leave their doors unlocked at night or drop off their children to houses of people they don’t know.  There could certainly be someone out there who would want to come into my house in the middle of the night and just admire the cuteness that will be my sleeping child, but does that mean I owe it to them to keep my house unlocked and available for the nefarious as well?

So the openness that allowed the abuse to occur is the very thing that serves to protect our children?  That notion is simply naive.

I commented on the post essentially explaining that I did not agree with Downes, and that while openness can certainly be beneficial on many levels, I believe operating with complete openness is not the absolute solution.

Later in the comments, Dean Shareski says,
“I’m curious about Ben’s comments. To me it reflects much of the fear that people have subjected to in our world.

I remember after the London bombings the website, We Are Not Afraid. That’s how I want to live which is not to
say we don’t do due diligence to protect our kids but not at the expense of the great benefits. Specifically, I’ve
made private a few photos of my kids in bathing suits that might be used nefariously but at some point, as you’ve
experienced, there’s a weirdo out there for everything.”

The reaction to the London bombings and the reaction to a predator abusing your child are two entirely different things.  Terrorists seek to terrorize.  To inflict fear and panic among a society so as to break down a system they oppose.  Child predators seek to indulge their own desires.  They don’t care about people’s panic.  If we send the message to terrorists that we are not afraid by going about the very business they tried to disrupt, we’re making a statement that they did not impact us.  If we do the same with our children and put them back in a compromising position, the only statement we’re making is to invite potential harm where it can certainly be avoided.

Dean does make reference to the fact that there are certain pictures he chooses to protect.  That simple statement says it all to me.  He’s using his judgment to protect what he so dearly loves.  It shows discretion, and it acknowledges that there is a threshold in all of this.

I believe this issue comes down to weighing the benefits versus the risks.  As I mentioned above, I will absolutely have my child interact with the world online.  I will not entirely shelter or imprison her from what is clearly a powerful chance to engage learning, but I will, however, use my best judgment when thinking of what is in the best interest of my child.  In the end, does posting pictures of my child serve to really benefit her, or does it do more to serve my own purposes at the cost of denying her the opportunity to one day shape her own online identity entirely?  Can’t I be satisfied sharing her images with people I know and trust until the day comes when she can make the decision for herself?  I think, personally, I can.

Thanks to D’Arcy Norman for the Flickr image.


  1. Bret Willhoit
    January 15, 2009


    I couldn’t have said it any better. Ever since I read Alec’s post, I have been trying to put into words how I feel and you completely nailed it.

  2. David
    January 15, 2009

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I will not post any pictures of my daughter online unless it is via a service were some privacy can be established.

    Also, you’re last bit about allowing your child to create their own online identity really got me thinking. I can’t even imagine what the online community will be like in 18 – 20 years when my daughter will be using it on her own terms. Will there be a trail of her created by me that she doesn’t wish to have? I hope not.

    One last thought I have that sort of relates is something that happened to me. Nothing involving pictures, it actually involved a website called Spoke. When I googled my name online, the first site that came up was Spoke. I had no contact with them, had never heard of them and never gave them permission to use me or any of my info. I found out that they got all my info from LinkedIN and created a profile of me. It took a few weeks to disassociate my name from the site. A few emails and a few phone calls ended up doing the trick. Did they do anything wrong by “stealing” my public info from LinkedIN and showing it on their site?

  3. Dean Shareski
    January 15, 2009

    There are certainly many more aspects and nuances to this discussion, which is why it’s important we continue to explore it.

    The questions that I ask myself usually include, “what’s the worst that can happen?” In Alec’s situation and in 99.999999% nothing really. The fact that someone has a photo of my kid on his computer is not much different that someone who sees my kid in the mall and has an image of her in their head. Yes, the potential of digital is different but what examples can you point to that would suggest something that might directly impact the child? The benefits, to me far outweigh the dangers. I realize everyone feels differently and can choose whatever they wish but I simply want people to be fully informed of the real dangers. Most times the dangers are unfounded. Not always, but mostly. Alec’s example is about as close as about as nasty as it gets in reality. Correct me if I’m wrong.

    Reminds me of a friend who wouldn’t let their kid on the monkey bars because they heard “how dangerous” it was. Every parent will make decisions about the safety of their children but there are many nuances here that need to be considered. I’m still willing to hear and learn more. In general, most reactions are overblown in my opinion.

    • Irish
      April 18, 2016

      A rolling stone is worth two in the bush, thanks to this arlteic.

  4. Claire Thompson
    January 15, 2009

    I’ve followed this since Alec first tweeted about the creepy Flickr guy. It’s opened up an interesting discussion and challenged my thinking on what to do with the photos of my kids that I’ve uploaded to Flickr. What I found interesting in the comment thread of Alec’s post was that many of the people who were very against openness on this front had very young children or were expecting their first child. At the opposite end of the continuum was Stephen Downes, who I understand has no children. I suspect Downes’ perspective is more objective, but whoever said parents have to be objective 😉

    Dean Shareski makes a great point above: “Reminds me of a friend who wouldn’t let their kid on the monkey bars because they heard “how dangerous” it was.” As parents we all make decisions about how to raise our children and what to expose them to. There is no one right way to raise your child. We all love and want what is best for them, but each of us is willing to take different risks. You might feel comfortable letting your child walk to school on her own in grade 2, but I might not be comfortable until my child is in grade 4. Neither position is right or wrong. I think it is the same thing with the current Flickr discussion.

    Thanks for continuing the discussion and giving me more to think about.

  5. DTD
    January 15, 2009

    Claire: I also commented on Alec’s post. I have no children, but I think Stephen Downes’s “totally open” stance is dangerously naive. On the other hand, I think a “totally closed” position is foolishly naive. I’d rather be considered a fool than present a danger to anyone, but the real point is that these days, in our real world, we all have to draw a line somewhere between the two.

  6. Claire Thompson
    January 16, 2009

    DTD: I have to admit I don’t know what to do. Do I want to put my children in danger by posting their photos openly on the web? Of course not. Is it putting them in danger if I do? I don’t know. When I first started posting photos of the kids to Flickr, I marked them all as private. This made it harder to share them with the people I wanted to share them with. So then I made them public. Now I’ve got them private again. It really is challenging to know what to do and I agree with you when you say “we all have to draw a line somewhere between the two”. I guess I’m just trying to figure out where my line should be.


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