My baby pictures and videos are the standard compendium of embarrassment. I was photographed waddling in nothing but a diaper, filmed smearing food all over my face instead of eating it. But I’m old enough that the kompromat is safe in the confines of physical photo albums and VHS tapes in my parents’ attic. Even my earliest digital activity—posting emotional MySpace photo captions and homemade music videos—took place in the new and unsophisticated internet of the early 2000s, and has, blissfully, been lost to time. I feel relief whenever I’m reminded of those vanished artifacts, and even more so when I see pictures and videos of children on the internet today, who won’t be so lucky.
In December, I watched a TikTok of two young sisters named Olivia and Millie opening Christmas presents. When the large boxes in front of them turned out to contain two suitcases, Millie, who appeared to be about 4 years old, burst into tears. (Luggage, unsurprisingly, was not what she wanted from Santa.) Her parents scrambled to explain that the real presents—tickets to a four-day Disney cruise—were actually inside the suitcases, but Millie was too far gone. She couldn’t stop screaming and crying. Nine million strangers watched her breakdown, and thousands of them commented on it. “This is a great ad for birth control,” one wrote. (The TikTok has since been deleted.)