There is nothing more unsettling than a mother's relationship with time. The first few months of your baby's life feel like an eternity. And yet somehow between that beginning and now, I blinked, and my baby is about to turn 12. He is roughly the same height as me. And he has a phone.
We arrived at the moment where he would start googling me so much faster than I expected. I thought I had more time to shape the imprint of me he'd find on the internet eventually. To delete those blog posts with more expletives than I'd hoped. To explain the less-than-generous opinions others hold of me, which he'd most certainly come across.
Having been a blogger and freelance writer on and off now for the better part of seven years, it is safe to say that I didn't practice many of the things I regularly preach to him now in my own internet past. When I started writing online, my laptop was my therapist, and into it I would type my deepest, darkest reflections. Then I would share them with as many people as wanted to read them. I would share cute personal anecdotes about him or our family. Editors would ask for pictures and I would eagerly supply them, all the while never thinking about the way things are shared and manipulated online. The way nothing is real or tangible, yet everything seems to last forever. We are together online, yet alone. We are real, but also heavily curated, versions of ourselves. I both am and am not the internet versions of myself. Yet I must own them all. And now, so must he.
Last week during some spare time in class in his middle school library, he googled me. And there it was. The full fire hose of my internet experience. The parts of his story he didn't know were public. The viral blog post I'd written six years ago that became its own news story. The strange descriptions of what I wrote and said and did in that post as told by other people who needed filler in their news cycle that week in 2013. The comments of people grateful I spoke up. The comments of people who said I deserved to have my children taken away from me. All of it accompanied by pictures of him and his family - pictures from sites that had asked to use these photos but were then lifted and repurposed without permission because once it's out there, it's out there. And because the rules of the internet road are little or none.
My son knows well the story I wrote about in that post, the day I let a device distract me while my daughter was in the tub. He knows that I wrote about this. He knows the television cameras came to our house to talk about it. He remembers being on TV. What he doesn't know is the deep shame and regret I still carry about this moment in my daughter's young life. I suspect he doesn't know that at the same time as feeling this deep shame, I'll never regret starting a national conversation about digital distractions. And he doesn't realise the way in which this story was then and still is now twisted and reframed among the wilds of the internet.
He came across a story with a title that said something like, "This mother nearly killed her daughter," which is technically not wrong, but not the title of my original piece. It was clearly designed to be more clickbait-ish, and it had an old picture of our family taken from somewhere else. He froze, he panicked. He didn't read the article. He couldn't. What was happening? What was real about his mother, what was true?
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Gratefully, we were at the end of the school day and there was a concerned teacher and counselor nearby who could call and quickly help clear up the misunderstanding. But it reminded me that because the internet is so seemingly easy to navigate, sometimes you forget the incredibly real lessons, the underlying hardness and complexity baked into our entire online experience. As a digital newcomer, what he is experiencing is not unlike the disorientation of new pilots learning to fly at night. Which is up and which is down? What is real?
Here is what I should have told Dylan before we arrived together at this day:
Everything you do on the internet lasts forever
Every social media account, every tweet, every blog post is part of your story, and whether we want to be forever framed by those things, prospective partners, employers and schools will search them and form an opinion of you. Whether we like that, whether it's accurate, is irrelevant. I don't get to decide what the totality of my internet thumbprint looks like to someone else. I put it all out there. All I can do is to own it. To acknowledge my growth as a person. To reflect the fact that while the digital versions of ourselves are two-dimensional and static, real people are not. We don't have to stay the same person as we put out there, and we don't have to become the version of the person other people think we are based on what they see or read.
Parse very carefully what you read online
Are you reading from an original source? Or are you reading someone else's reflections of a thing that actually happened? Are you reading your news from a newspaper with editors and reporters with degrees? Determining whether you are reading a first-person narrative, an opinion piece or informational text is shockingly hard to discern on the internet. But take the time to get this right. In a world where everything is equally glossy and accessible, we tend to whitewash things like perspective.
Perhaps most importantly, don't read the comments
Ever. About anything. Yes, there are some good comments out there, but mostly if you are putting yourself out on the internet, it should be because you feel proud or scared and excited about whatever it is you are sharing. Recognize the I in your internet experience. Don't get lost in what other people think of that. Doing so is deflating and useless. Both in life and on the internet, be intentional about what you put out there, and once you do, move ahead.
As we move forward, we are armed with the uncomfortable truth that neither of us can change my internet past; I'm not sure I would if I could. I am or at least was everything that I put out there at some point in time. I am responsible for these words, but not anyone else's opinion of them.
I can only reflect, and guide him to be as deliberate and thoughtful as possible as he clicks ahead, carefully carving out his own digital future.