Friday, February 16, 2024

Notations On Our World (Special Friday Edition); Saving Ourselves


How to Save Your Family from the Algorithm

Why my wife and I don’t post pictures of our children online

This piece was initially published on December 31, 2023 for The Free Press, you can read and share it there. I did another piece for them on parenting back in June, which you might also like!

Before we get into the article, I want to share some very exciting news. I’m doing two LIVE events in Australia where you can see me discuss big ideas and answer your questions from the stage. We’re calling it The Stoic Life. Join me in Sydney on July 31st and Melbourne on August 1st. We’ll have a limited number of slots of a VIP meet-and-greet as well if you want to chat afterward. It’s going to be great. Learn more and purchase tickets here.

There in the hospital in 2016, when I held my first child for the first time, I had a feeling common among new parents. I was overwhelmed by the sense that I had been entrusted with something very special. Your kids are so vulnerable and defenseless, so innocent and new. You hold them for that first time and think, this is the most wonderful and special thing in the world. You think, this is my purpose now: to protect, to serve, to teach.

What I was not thinking was: I bet this will get a lot of likes on Instagram.

My wife felt the same as I did. So, there and then we made a decision: we would not post pictures of our children online—and if we did, we would obscure their faces. We would also ask that their grandparents and our friends respect that choice and avoid doing so, too.

The reason I don’t post pictures of my sons, who are seven and four, on the internet is not because I am a private person. It’s not because, after writing a handful of bestselling books over the last decade, I have managed to achieve a fraction of the fame of the average beauty influencer and now worry about my family’s safety.

I mean, I am private and I do worry.

But we have kept them offline because it is the only way to stop social media’s skewed incentives from distorting our family life.

I see what the social networks are getting out of it. But what’s in it for the kids? And what’s it doing to all of us?

In my line of work, we talk about “audience capture.” It means that performing for viewers who like and respond to what you post can change a person. Across my handful of social media accounts, including in my writing and thinking on parenting at, I have a few million followers and many hundreds of millions of views across them and YouTube. You can feel the pressure to give the audience what they want, or to obsess over how your content will be received.

That’s what algorithms do, they seduce and corrupt. Fame and the demands of an audience are wicked forces in the life of an artist or a political thinker—it’s not something you want acting on your personal life too.

I know a couple, a man and a woman, who are both popular influencers. I watched with fascination and horror at how perfectly their expanding family fit into their social media lifestyle. The announcement. The baby bump. The gender reveal. The trip to the hospital. The public registry. The recommended products (complete with affiliate links). The sponsored content. It was almost as if, a cynical person might say, they had a kid for the content.

And the content is big business. It’s algorithmic gold—especially for other parents, scrolling on their phones in the middle of the night while feeding their baby, or sitting in the sun during soccer practice. And it’s the social media companies making money off the clicks.

On top of these distortive effects, there’s the hostility of social media. Trolls who tell you what you’re doing wrong. Haters who question your parenting decisions. Creeps who have opinions on what children wear and how they act. This is no place for babies! It’s no place for a parent either—not if one wants to cultivate the traits that parenting requires: Presence. Unconditional love. Patience. Respect. Humility.


Last Thanksgiving, as we took a family photo at the beach, my seven year old was acting crazy. He was running around in circles. He was making weird faces. His four-year-old brother was laughing while cowering, trying to avoid getting smashed into. Then they teamed up to lunge at the camera in an effort to knock it over, repeatedly, each time the timer was about to go off. I caught myself saying, “You’re ruining the picture!”

But they were not. The picture was not for anything. In fact, the phone was capturing an actual moment, and our actual family life—with its fair share of insanity and complete meltdowns never far away.

This is not what you see on social media. No one posts about life’s mediocrity, or their own deficiencies as parents. They don’t share their mistakes, or their unflattering angles.

“Family blogging is the grossest thing that has ever existed,” the filmmaker and vlogging pioneer Casey Neistat told me recently. “If you’re a parent, you know: it is hard to get your kid to behave, to do those performances and to act happy all the time. For every smiling kid, for every one of those videos, there’s six hours of the kid crying and screaming and the mother cutting all that footage out.”

The grossest example of the grossest thing ever? Four months ago this clip of a mom appeared on Reddit, where she asks her devastated son to perform for a video she’s making about their dog dying.

“Act like you’re crying,” she tells him brusquely.

“I am crying!” he wails.

And then he gets to watch his mom trying on a series of facial expressions to see which would pop out best as a thumbnail for her YouTube channel.

That is the screwed up part not just of family vlogging but of all the ordinary exploitation of children via social media. I wouldn’t wish having a stage mother on any kid, but child actors are at least protected by some regulations. Income is put in trusts so greedy parents can’t steal it all.

What happens to the ad revenue from the videos like the boy with the sick dog? Who protects kids from those kinds of parents? The answer, as a court just found in the child abuse case of popular mommy blogger Ruby Franke, is basically no one.

But the impact of social media on families is usually more subtle than this. Last year, we were standing in line at Disneyland when we got talking to a large family behind us. The young children and the adults were wearing color coordinated outfits perfect for social media.

What rides have you done so far, we asked.

“Oh, none,” their eight-year-old daughter told us in frustration. “We’ve been posing for photos for our parents all morning.”

Mom and Dad weren’t doing it for the money. Certainly the kids weren’t enjoying it. But personal boundaries and common sense were no match for the thrill of appearing to be the perfect family to friends, relatives and strangers on the internet.


In the ’70s, long before social media, the novelist Joan Didion dressed her daughter in perfect outfits for photographs. They would take her out to be seen in restaurants, the perfect literary family. “Only later,” Joan Didion wrote of parenting her daughter long before social media, “did I see that I had been raising her as a doll.” Heartbroken and grieving over the loss of both her husband and only child when she wrote those words, Didion was almost certainly being too hard on herself. But she was right to recognize that our kids are not props. What right do we have to turn them into fodder for our feeds, whether we have a few dozen followers or many millions?

Because we spend a lot of time together as a family and I show footage from my own life on social media, my kids do occasionally appear in the background of videos I’ve posted (if they turn toward the camera, we blur their faces). When I launched the Daily Dad email in 2018, it became inevitable that I would have to share at least some of my parenting experiences, whether in my own content or when asked about them in interviews, but still, I try to keep pretty clear boundaries between their lives and mine. I don’t want them to be dolls or props, unpaid accessories.

Yet even with the anonymizing we’ve done with our kids, I still felt strange including them without their consent, and so my wife and I set up retirement accounts for them that we deposit into each month as compensation for these background appearances. When they get older, they can decide whether they want to be included more or less in the work I do and they will at least have been compensated for their work as background actors when they were younger.

One of my other rules is that I don’t post any of the content myself. It goes through a social media team, so I don’t have to be an editor of my own life. I don’t have any of the social media apps on my phone either—preferring not to get unsolicited feedback from strangers about whether I am interesting or not. Because if this data and its demands are acting on you, shaping what you post or how you experience moments in your life, it bears asking, do you have an audience or does the audience have you?

If you need more convincing, just look at what the social media titans are doing themselves. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook and the owner of Instagram, who has made billions encouraging other people to live their lives out on his platforms, made a powerful admission on July 4 of this year. He posted a photo of his lovely family celebrating together . . . with the faces of his kids blurred out.

The only way to win is not to play.

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