Pity the little darlings if they are being raised by parents who like to share | Catherine Bennett

There’s little to stop social media obsessives exploiting children who are too young to say no

As one of Instagram’s most highly regarded influencers, with 24 million followers, Victoria Beckham will of course have thought hard before posting a photograph of her seven-year-old daughter, Harper, eyes closed, enjoying a professional facial. It was captioned by Beckham – almost as if she knew something terrifying about soap that she is not, alas, at liberty to disclose – “We MUST use CLEAN products on our children!!”

What kind of message would this send out, Beckham must have considered, particularly to parents cruelly reminded that they are at least a decade too late to extract any value from their own flesh and blood? Try getting anyone interested in a 21-year-old’s pores.

True, as growing numbers of mummy bloggers have demonstrated, there can be decent mileage in a confident pubescent – or even in an unusually tattooed but otherwise unexceptional 19-year-old. But youthful compliance with extreme parental exhibitionism, as much as it may look easy, probably depends, like deference to religious fanaticism, on undeviating inculcation, best started before the child knows anything else. In utero, if not in Clearblue.

Of course, as with escapees from Saudi Arabia, there will be exceptions, heartbreaking for the parents, where a carefully raised child refuses to perform. Some cases of suspected apostasy – a now rarely exhibited son, a recently invisible celebrity teen – serve as a warning to celebrity families and aspiring mummy bloggers of what can happen if the observances due to a brand are even fleetingly relaxed or interrupted. Just a few days of missed Instagrams or incomplete group hugs could swiftly lead to childish withdrawal, to divergent concepts of internet safety, a fatally damaged brand.

Ideally, no more than a few days should separate the Instagramming of a seven-year-old’s facial from the reveal of her new ’do. Or, for less prominent parent influencers, tweeters and bloggers, photographs of a free family trip to Lapland from a vlog about a borrowed car: “I think,” confides our expert, “it’s an ideal car for a small family.”

Where extended parental oversharing is concerned, it might also be wise to steer children away, for as long as possible, from the written evidence. At some point, the child will discover that their weight, or first period, or truculence, doubled as a fount of free copy. With luck, they may, like the grown children of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua, pronounce themselves undamaged. Long before that, Jeffrey Archer reportedly relished his notoriety in Weston-super-Mare as the greedily calculating “Tuppence”, star of his mother’s weekly column, Over the Teacups. And as we know, it never did Jeffrey any harm.

It will be a while, however, before we see the results of the unfolding, mass experiment on social media, whereby careless overdisclosure or parental commercial blogging makes continually updated data about young, non-consenting subjects available for general viewing and harvesting. Some academics have called this contribution to the wholesale datafication of children “intimate surveillance”.

Readily monetised, with rewards often described by happy mummy bloggers, it plainly has attractions for parents, themselves the beneficiaries of unvlogged childhoods, which run counter to their children’s interests. A 2016 study suggested that children were twice as likely as their parents to believe that adults should not post about them without permission.

After getting a laptop for Christmas, the fourth-grade child of a noted American blogger, recently inquired: “Why are all these pictures of me on the internet?” She asked for them to be taken down. We know this because her mother, the mommy blogger Christie Tate, has just written a big, controversial piece about it in the Washington Post. “I told her that was not possible,” Tate writes. “I’m not done exploring my motherhood in my writing.”

Though Tate remains in negotiation with her daughter, it’s still possible to read, in her blog Swaddled with Joy, her extended tribute to her son’s dried snot, which does in fact pass for surpassing artistry within the genre.

Rarely can the limits of the late Nora Ephron’s “everything is copy” have been so exhaustively demonstrated as in mummy/mommy blogs, where no detail is too banal for disclosure in entries whose purpose is – not unreasonably – to earn money. “It’s Christmas jumper day!” confides an admired UK exemplar. “I can’t handle how much love I have for these two little people.”

Compared with contemporary mummy blogs, most of whose promotion-friendly casts, with names such as Big boy, Ickle wee and Daddy P, rarely seem to do much more than cuddle in matching pyjamas, Mrs Archer’s doting Over the Teacups read, when you revisit, like late Chekhov.

But much depends on taste and writing style is largely immaterial to the conflict between the digital parent’s right to express her (rarely his) proud caregiver’s self and what is due to the child under the UN Convention on Rights of the Child. Article 16, in the UN’s child-friendly version: “You have the right to privacy.” Article 3: “All adults should do what is best for you.” It’s probably reassuring to mommy bloggers that even before the arrival of intimate surveillance, the UN convention proved to be entirely compatible with real-life versions of Little Miss Sunshine.

Maybe most Big boys and Ickle wees feel, if asked, that loss of privacy and an ineradicably extended digital footprint are a reasonable price – providing snot, spots and puberty are left out of it – to pay for frequent family holidays. Christie Tate’s daughter may be atypical. As it is, for all the growing scholarly anxiety around child datafication, there remains little, other than delayed resentment and unspecified algorithmic consequences, to deter parents from digitally capitalising, a la Beckham, on their own children.

There is hope, even, for parents who have missed this opportunity. Just because you can’t be a Victoria Beckham doesn’t mean you can’t – though it takes the right child – become a Stanley Johnson.

• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist


Catherine Bennett

The GuardianTramp

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