An Anonymous Life
Updated: Nov 18, 2020
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It’s a common concern. We all talk in small groups and shake our heads, throwing up our hands because the fight is too big. Social media, the talk is old. No one likes it, but everybody is a part of it. On some level, we all feel that we perhaps perpetuate the problem, but can’t exactly figure out how or how to invoke change.
A few days ago, I posted a video of my son doing something that I found to be smart and cute. He was reciting something from memory, but pronouncing many words incorrectly. In my family we have a sick love for children mispronouncing words and often, in time, these mispronunciations are good enough to replace the actual word. This becomes a new language my family speaks developed over generations of children; cousins, nieces, and nephews who have all made their contribution. So, I had the footage, with many potential additions to our language. After a few minutes, I saw 19 views, 4 likes, and 2 hearts and I got a little panicky. I began to feel like I needed to take it down. I wondered who had seen it and I felt that I had violated his trust in a weird way. It was a personal, in his room with his favorite stuffed animal and he performed his song in a way that only I would see. After a few minutes, I took it down.
I described this to my husband, hoping he could help me figure out why I had felt this way. He remarked, “he is entitled to an anonymous life just like we had.” This threw me a little. An anonymous life. It sounds dull, it sounds negative.... it sounds normal. There is something wonderful about an anonymous life. It means a person has space to grow up. He or she can say words incorrectly, still love their teddy bear at any age, and figure things out in private.
I received my first text message and joined Facebook the summer before my senior year of high school. I consider myself among the last to have grown up anonymously. So, I have to imagine how I would feel if people I did not know, or did not know well, had seen things only my family had. Then, living in a world of not knowing who knew what about me. Just placing myself in this position creates embarrassment when I think of things I may have said or done being posted by someone else, on their terms, or without my knowledge. This means my 5-year-old, 8-year-old, or even 14-year-old self (eek!) would have influenced how other people view me as a 33-year-old. It really is not accurate or fair.
My sophomore year in college I had a computer class. One day, a classmate turned around and whispered “hey I just added you, accept the request.” I felt some pressure but I complied. Then, I watched for the remainder of the class as he went though all of my pictures, information, and wall to wall conversations (showing my age, huh?). It was awkward to watch but even more, it was a snap into reality that this is what was happening with everything I posted. These posts were out there and being studied with assessments made about who I am and it cannot be undone. It forever influenced me to filter every opinion, comment, picture, and information put online. However, I have not considered this towards my children. I consider their safety always, but tend to post about them instead of myself. To be honest, I have been able to practice a low-profile existence in the social media world. It has been very intentional, but my only exceptions were my kids and the occasional humorous post. As long as I was being mindful of their safety, I felt there was no problem.
In teenage development there is a tendency of the brain to accept an “Imaginary Audience.” It is the belief or feeling that everyone is paying attention to oneself and making evaluations. Its very common in teenagers who haven’t outgrown their egocentric brain. It often leads to anxiety and identity crises. Luckily, it is imaginary and teens grow up to realize they are not the center of the universe, no one is watching them, and frankly, no one cares all that much what they wear, think, or do. Teens then, ideally, grow into who they really are as adults, because they no longer are seeking to control the opinion and please the imaginary audience. In the world today, understand that the audience is not imaginary. It’s ‘Real Audience.’ Now, the developing child or teenager does not necessarily reach a stage of maturity or realization that there is no audience. There is no peace of being free to be anonymous, having gains and losses, highs and lows, growing and grieving. Instead, children are taught to display the expressions of love, beliefs, vent heated political stances and everything in between, all before having the control and maturity to realize that it is not necessary and definitely not a good idea. To make matters worse, even though it might have been deleted, no one knows who was watching and in whose brain it will forever live. We now have a real audience.
Understand I do not believe that posting things about children is altogether awful and irreversibly damaging. I understand there are much worse things. Often, we wonder why Americans feel the need to post a majority of what they do. Perhaps an anonymous childhood could be the liberation of a lifelong sentence to an imaginary audience. Perhaps a less documented development just might help children have space to grow up, and much more importantly, have it modeled that the best life does not require the approval of the unseen audience with the applause of thumbs and hearts. My son will one day have to decide how anonymous he wants to be. Until then, I’m leaving a nearly blank slate for him. I cannot encourage him to be anonymous if I have not made him so.