Privates on parade: balancing confidentiality and openness in the adoption blogosphere

A piece from Adoption Journey on the need for adopters to consider privacy in social media.

A few weeks ago I was reading the paper in my lunch break. Towards the middle was one of those heart warming human interest stories. An adult who had been adopted as a very young child had set out on a search for her birth mother and had finally found her using Facebook. A reunion ensued and so did a happy ending. They were now back in regular contact and building a new relationship. Who couldn’t fail to have their heart touched by such a lovely tale? Well, me for a start because, as I read it, the uplifting story was tinged with a shiver which went down my spine.

This did seem to be a truly happy ending as far as the story told and the child’s adoptive parents had supported the search from start to finish. But do newspapers always tell the full story? As I recall, in the newspaper story the child had been relinquished by her mother, some twenty five or thirty years ago. The implication was that economic circumstances and family pressure had led to the child entering the care system.

100However, for the children who are being adopted in the UK today that is the most unusual of circumstances. These days relinquishments are rare, with most children who end up being adopted entering the system because of some form of serious neglect or abuse – or at least the pressing need for action to prevent it. It is interesting reading the blogs which link up every week on The Adoption Social and contrasting the transatlantic experiences of adoption bloggers.

Those blogs which I read from the States largely seem to feature open adoptions through voluntary relinquishment. The circumstances portrayed so vividly in the film Juno. When I watched that film a few years ago, as well as marvelling at the stunning performance given by Ellen Page in the lead role, the scenario seemed quaint. Now, a few years later and absorbed in the a world of UK adoption it seems foreign.

Were that film to be transplanted into a UK setting it would not only be be quaint. It would be illegal.

The upshot of these rambling musings is that, in the UK and for those children adopted elsewhere from foster care, there may be real reasons why first hand contact with birth parents could be very undesirable for adopted children. And yet here we are, writing about our adoption experiences in the most public and connected of public arenas. How, then, to balance the need for the security of our children with a desire to be open and inclusive about our experiences?

For me, the decision to start blogging came only after the deepest of consideration and discussion with my wife. We were both concerned at whether it could threaten the security of our child. Whether it would pose a risk either now or in the future. Whether we were content that the risks (real, perceived or imagined) could be sufficiently minimised and managed.

There are very good reasons why contact between adoptive and birth parents is carefully managed, anonymous and confidential. And across many of the blogs which I read on a weekly basis it is clear that precautions to preserve anonymity have been taken. Many of the UK blogs written by UK adopters are presented under pseudonyms (like “The One Hand Man”, whose blog states that Andrew McDougall is a fictional construct for blogging purposes). Others are content to go on a first name only basis like our very own Vicky and Sarah at The Adoption Social (presuming, of course, that those are their real names). Still others adopt internet handles based on the names of their blogs, like Suddenly Mummy or 3 Bees and a Honey’s “Honey Mummy”.

But is this all unnecessary paranoia? Are there really clear and present dangers out there for open and inclusive adopters.

Certainly my heart sinks when I see a new blog where the first posting runs something along the lines of: “Hi! We’re Danny and Danielle Donaldson. This blog is to chart our journey as we are about to start an adventure into the wonderful, wide world of adoption. We’re an administrator at St Botolphs hospital in Cheam and a chartered accountant with Bloggins and Bloggins in Cricklewood and live in the Orchard Cottage in the lovely village of Nether Walloping Under Stress…” Given the search capabilities of social media etc that degree of online openness is probably inadvisable at the best of times – let alone in the adoption world. A little anecdote should illustrate this. A few years ago, well before we started the adoption process, our church began supporting a community project in the Philippines through an aid charity. As part of this we signed up to sponsor a little 3 year old boy. We got some basic info on him and sent off our first sponsors letter introducing ourselves, including a photo. A few months later we received a lovely letter in response… As sponsors do. However, a few weeks after that I also received a friend request on Facebook. It was from his mum. Now, there wasn’t a negative outcome to this. There were no begging letters, inappropriate requests or emotional blackmail. However, it does go to illustrate just how unbelievably connected the world we live in is. With social media, websites like 192.com or the Way Back Machine and a million and one different ways to build up a profile online (wittingly or unwittingly) we are each more discoverable now than we ever have been. There is an old (well, in internet terms anyway) maxim… “Once it’s online, it’s online forever.”

I certainly know that I have inadvertently built myself up a healthy web profile without even trying.

A career in the public facing side of the public sector means that my name and work details have ended up on public documents, online contact lists and so forth. I have presented at conferences which has lead to my CV, my picture (and on one case, video of me) being posted online. I have participated in online discussion forums and left product reviews on websites… much of this long before I had ever considered that one day adoption might be something I would pursue.

So do I believe that I can achieve perfect control over information about me and my son? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be circumspect on the internet. It is a likelihood that someday my child may search for his birth parents. However, when it happens it would like it to be because he has decided to and, hopefully, he will decide to include us in that process. What I don’t want is for some online carelessness to lead his birth parents to contact him surreptitiously at a point where he is not ready for that contact. While I continue to blog about our journey it is my responsibility to ensure that our openness does not compromise our privacy. This remains a concern both now and for the future. Although, as far as we know his birth parents are relatively benign (in terms of immediate risk that they pose) that does not go for all birth parents. Many could be quite the opposite. But what about extended families? What of the birth parents’ attitudes, associations and situation in the future? There are so many uncertainties.

The nature and character of birth parents is something which must be factored into our stance as members of the online community.

Not quite the same, but we have some really good friends who went through adoption in the same local authority as us. We don’t see them so much these days though. While their final adoption order was being processed a clerical error was discovered which meant that their court correspondence had been sent to their children’s birth parents. Including their address. The details of their case meant that now they don’t live in the same local authority area as us. In fact they don’t live in the same region of the country!

Social media in particular is a concern for many adopters. It is there to make the connection between disparate people easier. I know it is a big concern for our Local Authority who run regular post-approval courses on the internet, social media and ensuring the privacy and security of your adoptive placement.

So as a blogger, how can we balance that openness and privacy. Each will need to come to their own conclusions on that. However, here are a few thoughts which you might like to consider in starting to blog…

Identity: maintaining anonymity can be important. Both for you and your child. Consider how best to do that. There are many ways to approach this. Pseudonyms and internet “handles”. Consider creating a new, blogging specific email address which is separate from your personal email address. If you also run other non-related blogs for other reasons and other interests then run them from a separate email and login.

This is all particularly important if you are in a web-based sector where you will already have been working hard to build up a broad and active internet presence. On the other hand, if your other online business/activities are directly adoption related you may wish to be more open and create direct links with blogs on your own personal journey. However, the degree of your internet presence should be a conscious decision, weighing up the positives and negatives, the risks and advantages. It shouldn’t be something you allow to happen unawares and by accident.

Photographs: they say that a picture can tell a thousand words. On that basis they need to be treated with care. We have taken a personal decision that we will post no photos of our child on the internet, whether this is on blogs, on Facebook… Wherever. We have asked friends to respect this wish too. We have even been very careful about the way in which we have distributed photos by e-mail. Our Facebook privacy settings – in particular image settings – are set as tightly as possible.

With the development of facial recognition software over recent years and the ability of Google Images to search from source photos, allowing it to search for similar photos online, this seems like a reasonable precaution. It is worth remembering that maxim about the indelible nature of internet information. The truth is out there, in pixelated form. After all, we have met our little boy’s birth parents so they know what we look like. Furthermore, with each contact letter we have included photographs of our little boy.

Different bloggers take different approaches to image control. We have gone for a harder “no photos at all” line. Some use photos which have been anonymised using black letter boxes or pixelation. Others post only “back of the head” shots… Again, it is for each to decide what works for them.

Details: Of course, it’s not just your online identity which can identify you. The content of your blogging can give more information than perhaps you would like. We talk about our lives and our experiences when we blog. For us, in particular, our blog tells the story of our journey through adoption – real, identifiable events populated by real identifiable people. How one decides to obfuscate and obscure leads into a grey world between facts and fiction. Every blogger will need to work out where their thresholds lie. How much information can one change without compromise the authenticity of your account. For me personally, I have tried to retain as much openness and authenticity as possible. The principle I quote in the introduction of my blog recalls the old ’60s cop show, Dragnet, which stated at the beginning of every episode that the stories in the programme were true, ‘…only the names have been changed to protect the innocent…” However, maintaining our online anonymity still requires some careful drafting.

A few final thoughts…

Setting down these thoughts in writing has been an interesting exercise. Reading the words back, it would be so easy to see me as some sort of Luddite conspiracy theorist, holed up in a bunker somewhere in the wilds and distrustful of a world which is clearly out to get me. Ironically, it’s quite the opposite. I love openness and the connection that they internet can bring. Sure, my Facebook privacy settings err on the more security conscious but that is partly driven by my still recent position as an adopter. I still share photos and thoughts on there. It is just that nońe of them explicitly reveal the identity of my little boy.

Whatever, there will be a balance to be struck. Some will opt for a stricter, more private stance. Some will simply opt out of online life altogether for this reason. Others will retain an open and discursive stance in terms of the details they are willing to share about their lives and their identities. Many, perhaps most, will lie somewhere in-between. I think that my only hope is that if they do then they do so in an informed and conscious manner – aware of the risks which their openness entails and willing to accept them.

It would be very interesting to hear about how you have considered and dealt with the issues raised in this blog. Please feel free to leave a comment in response.

4 thoughts on “Privates on parade: balancing confidentiality and openness in the adoption blogosphere

  1. Suddenly Mummy

    A very useful and thought-provoking post. I made massive changes to my online presence shortly after I started fostering in response to obvious needs to keep the identities of looked-after children secure, knowing that, in some cases, their family members might live within streets of me. In fact, on one memorable occasion, a hairdresser asked me what I did for a living and when I told her she told me about a child on her street that had been taken into care. It was very clear from her description that this was the same child who was currently living with me. It still makes me shudder a bit as I could so easily have had him with me. It’s a very small world.

    But as an adopter, it is possible that I might not have been forced to think it all through so carefully at the beginning of the process. It seems to me that many adopters have previously had a huge online presence with real names as part of documenting and sharing journeys through infertility and IVF, etc. and issues of internet privacy might only seem pertinent after information could have already been shared. From the very beginning it’s important to consider privacy.

    I know that all my adopted son’s family live very locally. They have met me many times and know my whole name and therefore my son’s new name. His BM knew where I lived so I moved house. I have a personal FB account with privacy settings locked down tightly (Facecrooks has an excellent guide on doing this), and I have an extremely common name (would return tens of thousands of results!) so I’m harder to find. I also have a Suddenly Mummy FB page for posting blog posts to, and all other social media uses that pseudonym. I post back-of-head photos of my son (pointless really, since BM knows what I look like so doesn’t need to see his pics!) and am careful not to post pictures taken around the house or local streets that might be identifiable.

    Despite that, I know that we could be found. And one day I expect that we will be.

    Reply
  2. plumstickle

    Goodness, I think about this every day.

    I certainly started out being much more guarded online than I am now (we do put photos on Facebook but have very tight privacy settings – I think?!). My old blog (written under a pseudonym) was rumbled by school at a particularly tricky time so I had to delete all posts which could be used by anyone as evidence against my son and start again under yet another name. Recently, a couple of local friends have ‘discovered’ me on Twitter so I am rethinking that handle too. I’ll probably add a new account under my real name for those folk. I felt very annoyed to be found – and yet Twitter is not private in any way – probably more open even than Facebook.

    But all that is to do with local friends, not birth family. As far as they are concerned, we were encouraged to be very open from the start for the sake of our children’s ‘identity’. Since then, a lot more information about their early life has ‘become available’ to us and I completely regret ever writing to the birth family at all, let alone not changing my very identifiable children’s even more identifiable names. Still, we are where we are and seven years on, we won’t be changing names now. As the children approach their teens, the bigger problem is stopping them from putting their own names and images online, even when we say no or advise very strongly against it.

    I would advise any new adopters to be as protective as possible right from the word go and gently let go as they feel safer. It also may help to bear in mind that we cannot truly protect our children if they don’t want to be protected. As with all things, we just have to do our best!

    Reply
  3. onroadtoadopt

    I was fairly security conscious even before adoption as far as personal stuff goes. As a university lecturer I do not want my personal stuff easily accessible. So Facebook was already locked down and I carefully went through all tagged photos removing my name from them. At work I have a standing request that any photos published online do not have my name against them. Befire we afopted my husband & I did (& still do regularly) Google searches on our names to see what they cane up witj. Even on Twitter I have 4 separate accounts and on Facebook I never use our sons name. I do post photos but of the back of head variety – use a secure site for photos for family & friends. Basically careful does it is our policy.

    Reply
  4. Treemendouskids

    This is a really interesting post, thank you for taking the time to write and share.
    I’ve started a blog to diarise and share our adoption journey and have tried to remain totally anonymous in person and location. I thought it would be a great idea to have my own URL rather than use my WordPress site. Then I realised that the we address would have an owner and contact email associated. I’m still in the process of working out how to make it private. It’s all quite scary and makes me assess whether it’s worth it?

    Reply

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