Tucked away in a corner of Facebook, an ultrasound image, swathed in grayscale tones, marks the beginning of a digital narrative for an unborn child.
This image signals the inception of an endless cascade of digital moments chronicling the life of the unborn. This is the birthplace of the "Generation Embarrassed" phenomenon, an era whose inhabitants have been under constant surveillance, their lives recorded and shared publicly since the dawn of their existence.
Generation Embarrassed is now acutely aware of the digital footprints that their parents have painstakingly curated, footprints that precede their own memories and, often, their consent. This awareness triggers a spectrum of emotions, most notably embarrassment.
This isn't merely the quintessential adolescent awkwardness underscored by a regrettable yearbook photo or a facepalm moment. It's profound, ingrained. It's rooted in the fact that their first steps, first words, preschool confrontations, nude bath photos, images clad in diapers, faces smeared with food, and napping in a bowl of spaghetti have been archived for the public's viewing pleasure on a platform they never consented to.
This feeling of exposure indicates an infringement on personal boundaries they were never given the opportunity to establish. It's the unsettling acknowledgment that their photos, stories, and milestones have been exposed to the judgments, remarks, and 'likes' of strangers, acquaintances, and relatives alike.
The essence of their formative years, from their clumsy transitions to their shining victories, has been transformed into a voyeuristic exhibition. This embarrassment emanates from the realisation that their life, from its earliest stage, was inadvertently commoditised and displayed, often for others' second-hand enjoyment.
The expansive memory and reach of the internet ensure that anything posted remains accessible, crafting a digital time capsule whose potential implications can echo far into the future. This is the paradox of social media. While it offers boundless opportunities for connection, education, and expression, it also possesses a malevolent side, one that can exploit information shared innocently years ago. Every shared picture, video, or anecdote becomes a data point that can be scrutinised, (think 76 million data points by the time they were 13yrs) misconstrued, misused, or even manipulated. Potential employers, college/uni admission officers, and future partners could all potentially access the online archives of Generation Embarrassed. An innocent picture of a tantrum, a family dispute, or a silly childhood game could be taken out of context and misinterpreted. In worst-case scenarios, this could result in bias, judgment, or missed opportunities based on a narrative these individuals never had control over.
The danger of data privacy violations looms large. From identity theft to online bullying, the threats are abundant, reaching beyond embarrassment into the sphere of physical and financial harm. The collection of this personal information from such a tender age also feeds into broader issues like surveillance and targeted advertising. Tech companies possess the ability to track and analyse individual behaviours from these digital footprints, potentially swaying and manipulating Generation Embarrassed perceptions and choices without their awareness.
Arguably the most impactful effect of all is the emotional strain.
As these adolescents mature, they may struggle with the sensation of their past relentlessly trailing them. The notion of leaving one's past behind and starting fresh becomes elusive when everything is permanently ingrained on social media platforms. This could impact their mental health, self-esteem, and the freedom to evolve without fear of perpetual online judgment.
This isn't about painting a negative picture. Instead, it's about pointing out the unintended effects of a freely left digital trail. While we admire the technology that connects us, it's just as important to recognise how it can harm, particularly the young people who are made into unwitting online personas of their lives even before they've had a say in it.
In each of my presentations to students who are part of Generation Embarrassed, a recurring question surfaces "How do I tell my parents to stop? how do I ask them to delete images or ask me first?" It underscores a crucial point - please ask them first. This simple act embodies one of the most powerful lessons we can teach our children about online consent. Online consent isn't just about refusing or granting permission to share explicit or intimate images. It extends to even the most seemingly trivial actions online, such as adding someone to a group chat. Asking for consent, teaching respect for personal boundaries, and fostering an environment where permission is paramount, are the foundational steps toward a healthier, safer online world. By doing so, we can set a strong example for our children, empower them with a sense of control over their online presence, and instill a deeper understanding of consent that goes far beyond our homes and into the vastness of social media and the online world.
So, what does this all signify for Generation Embarrassed?
How do they handle the ramifications of their unintentional online existence? Do they retaliate by disengaging from social media, striving to reclaim control over their narrative? Or do they accept it as an inevitable outcome of the era they were born into?
The online identities of these teenagers are complex. They are a product of their parents' viewpoints and expectations, their own creation, and a consequence of peer influence and societal pressure. Trying to discover their authentic selves amidst these overlapping and often conflicting digital identities presents a unique challenge. More than any generation before, Generation Embarrassed navigates a minefield of online presence and privacy issues. As they come of age, the discourse around online consent, online etiquette, and privacy rights are not just abstract societal discussions but deeply personal and pertinent topics they grapple with daily.
The emergence of Generation Embarrassed marks a crucial turning point in our society, instigating vital conversations on the ethics of online sharing and consent. It serves as an alarm bell for parents, urging them to rethink their social media habits. It calls on educators and policymakers to tackle these unique challenges and prepare the next generations for a life entwined online and off. To Generation Embarrassed it is all the same thing…..Life. Their discomfort and embarrassment could be a powerful catalyst for change. There is an understanding that while it's natural to be proud and want to share their child's life, it's crucial to ensure these actions respect the child's autonomy and future comfort.
Are we, the parents, the guardians, the older generation, the actual issue?
By sharing every aspect of our children's lives, could we have unknowingly set a pattern where privacy, even our own, is disregarded? Could this be the reason why kids share everything, including in some extreme cases, explicit images?
I dare to suggest that we, the older generation, might be unintentionally complicit in this culture of oversharing. Our well-intended enthusiasm to document and share every moment might have, inadvertently, diminished respect for personal boundaries. This could be a significant factor in why some young people feel it's acceptable to share intimate content so freely. As such, it's crucial for us to reassess our own online habits and the precedents we set.
It's time for us to reflect collectively.
This a wake-up call to revisit our approach to sharing on social media, to question the norms we've established, and to contemplate the profound impact our sharing habits may have on the younger generation.
Generation Embarrassed indeed reflects our digital culture, a culture that urgently needs reevaluation and reform. Perhaps in this shared discomfort, we'll find the impetus to create a healthier digital environment for everyone one that respects privacy, values consent, is empathetic, and celebrates individuality.
Members of our Youth Voice share personal experiences
For as long as I can remember my Mum has been taking photos of me and uploading them to Facebook. Sharing it all with family and friends the second I did something cute or funny or infuriating. All these people who are pretty much strangers to me know everything about my life, while I don’t even know their names. I couldn’t pick them out in a crowded room, but they know what age I lost my first tooth, the awards I’ve won at school, and how one time when I was a baby I made poo art in my porta cot. And it’s embarrassing. I distinctly remember asking my mum to not upload things on Facebook and her arguing back saying “It’s only for your family” or “It’s cute.” But it’s bigger than that. She’s friends with some of my teachers, my first boss, and some of my friends’ parents. I hate it and she just doesn’t get it.
Being the first generation of children who were introduced to the whiff of social media, it's safe to say we have experienced all the ups and downs of it. Even before I could read or write, social media was a big influence in the lives of my parents. Facebook's initial launch was in 2004, parents were quick enough to start posting pictures of their children, their achievements, and every little interesting thing that happened in their lives. Being an adult now, I scroll back to my parent's Facebook timeline from a decade ago seeing pictures of myself - Awkward pictures. Growing up I didn't have the best ‘face’- I was very insecure as I had teeth that showed when I smiled with my lips closed. My fellow peers made fun of my ‘rabbit’ teeth all the time. I hated pictures being taken of myself, but them being published all over a platform I have never heard of made me feel worse. Eventually, with the help of braces, I sure did fix my teeth, but those photos - those photos still surface on the internet where my friends and peers even now, can easily access to use them against me. It attacks my self-esteem greatly, even as an 18-year-old. But to my parents, it's their little child's milestones being documented on a platform they can access anytime - but so can total strangers.
I've been showing up in mum's Facebook posts for a long time now. I know that she has posted photos from when I was a baby and stuff because she shows me every now and then and it hasn't really bothered me too much. Thinking about it now, I guess it does make me feel a little uneasy as people I don't know personally can see pictures of me doing different things but I know that mum is just proud of me and likes to share that with her friends. I have also consented to a lot of pictures mum has posted because she's either asked me if she can or, as she's a writer, I have been included in quite a lot of articles for big brands that I have had to decide if I wanted to be part of. I knew each time that these articles would be shared online and on social media and I was always ok with that. I still help mum with this kind of thing now and I really enjoy seeing myself online. As I get older, I am starting to learn more about what people can find out about you and that they can steal your photos for bad things so it's probably a good time to chat to mum about it a bit more.
I was travelling in India with my mum when I remember her first posting a photo of me on Facebook. I was around 12. I was really unhappy that she’d done that without asking me, and I told her as much. She told me that I was her child and that she could post what she wanted. She didn’t want to respect my right to privacy because she thought she had some nonexistent parental privilege. She understands now, especially as I’ve gotten older, but I still think a lot of parents don’t understand the right to privacy that their children have, regardless of who the adult figure is in their life that wants to post them online.
I never really noticed before when my family took photos of me and put them on their Facebook or Instagram because we have grown up in a society where it's normal. It's not that I care but the thought of pictures of me as a baby with my bare bum out on the beach is definitely a little embarrassing, and what if one of my classmates finds that? I don't mind it now because my parents don’t post me without asking but I would be upset if they didn't.
My mother and I maintain a mutual understanding regarding the sharing of non-consensual photographs or taking pictures of each other without prior knowledge for social media purposes. During my childhood, particularly before the age of 12, I did not find it bothersome, as social media did not possess the same significance it does today. However, as I entered my teenage years, my self-consciousness heightened due to severe acne, and I actively avoided being photographed. Both of my parents were considerate of my feelings in this regard. Overall, this was not a significant concern for me as I had an open line of communication with my parents. Nonetheless, I can empathise with why other children may not feel comfortable in such situations.
It is undeniably evident that the rise of social media has touched every aspect of our existence, including the way we interact, share, and express ourselves. One of the most profound is visible in Generation Embarrassed, a demographic whose entire life has been thrust into the public domain, often without their consent, thanks to their parents' and guardians' constant sharing habits.
While we as a society continue to grapple with the implications of our collective digital footprint, the voices of these young people highlight an urgent need to reassess our online behaviour. They narrate tales of discomfort, embarrassment, and violation of privacy, pointing towards an unsettling trend of online oversharing. The constant exposure to unknown eyes and the potential misuse of their information has left them with an enduring sense of vulnerability. The complexities of their online identities have forced them to constantly negotiate their self-image, privacy, and online persona.
As parents, guardians, and members of an older generation, we have an inherent responsibility towards the next generation. The need of the hour is to consciously reevaluate the impact of our online habits on our children's lives. We must recognise that our intentions can have unintended consequences, no matter how well-meaning. Sharing moments of their lives, no matter how trivial or monumental, needs their consent.
We have stepped into a pattern where privacy, even our own, has been sacrificed at the altar of social media. The culture of oversharing we've fostered might be the root of why kids today share everything so freely. It is high time we revisited our approach to online sharing, acknowledging the profound impact it can have on the younger generation.
The voices of Generation Embarrassed are not a chorus of complaints but a call to action. They demand a space where their rights to privacy are respected, their consent is sought, and their autonomy is acknowledged. It is a call for empathy, respect, and individuality. This is a generation that seeks to redefine the rules of online engagement, to construct a healthier, safer online world. Their discomfort and embarrassment serve as a powerful trigger, to effect much-needed change.