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The Parable of “Success Kid” Meme

That cute photo could come back to haunt your kid.

Meme culture is a part of life now, and memes spread faster than ever. One of the most popular and longest-standing memes, Success Kid, has been in the news lately after Iowa congressman Steve King started using the image in some of his fundraisings. According to GQ, King is “known for his frequent racist comments, vehement opposition to immigration, ties to far-right white nationalists, and drinking out of a toilet to own the libs—is 70 years old.”

King isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and particularly Laney Griner, the mom of “Success Kid” isn’t happy. She sent a cease and desist letter through her lawyer to King, after discovering her son’s picture appeared in a campaign ad. The letter told King to stop using the image on any material and to issue a public apology. “I was definitely not happy about it,” Griner told GQ. “I’ve known about Steve King for a long time and he’s not someone I care for or agree with in any way.”

The Success Kid meme started way back in 2007 when Griner posted the photo of her then 11-month-old son Sam, to her Flickr account. From there, it snowballed and became one of the first memes, with several iterations since and shared all over the internet. This meme is used to “to express relish over a hard-won victory or demonstrate an iron determination to bounce back,” the New York Times explains. Griner told GQ that she’s never really been a fan of the viral fame of the photo, but she did license the image through Getty in 2009 and a few years later hired on a brand manager and attorney to keep tabs on the copyright. We’ve seen this kid everywhere since, and he’s become a part of internet culture.

But Sam is a teenager now, and the damage has been done–unfortunately. “He’s basically been a meme for as long as he knows. But once he hit 12, 13 it was just like, an embarrassment for him,” Griner said when she was asked how her son feels about his picture being a meme, specifically related to King’s usage of it. And this is where the trouble lands with internet meme culture and parents so eager to share every little moment and photo with the world. The world can see it and it’s so hard to predict what will go viral, and even hard to control the message that will be attached to it.

As parents, we must be really aware of how our kids are growing up and how different it is from when we were little. We grew up with the internet, yes, but we were in our early preteen/teenage years. Microblogging and social media wasn’t a thing yet and we got to see the first iterations of memes go viral. Now, everything and anything lives and stays on the internet. People screenshot without even thinking about it – nothing can ever really be entirely removed once it’s on social media and the internet. When our kids grow, some of them will have every moment of their life documented for anyone to see and just like Griner, you could be caught off guard by what goes viral, even an innocent image of your kid.

So, what can we do as parents? How can we proactively protect our kids without having to disconnect from social media? You just need to be aware that you’re creating your child’s digital footprint, often before they’re even born—and protect it. Many social media sites like Instagram or Snapchat, have the option to make an account private, allowing viewing to only people you explicitly allow. Apps like TinyBeans, which promotes safer sharing with approved people. Being aware of what information you share is critical too—not sharing your child’s full name or birthday, and be clear with the adults in your child’s life that there are social media boundaries they need to respect.

It sounds scary, parenting in the digital age, and it is to some extent. But as long as you’re aware that anything you post can become a meme in an instant, and you protect your kids from that as much as you can, you won’t run into issues like Griner is where you’re fighting to get your kid’s face off a political message you do not agree with.