We’ve been inundated with expert opinions on young kids and adolescents using social media- when is it okay to introduce social media, how do we protect their privacy and how is it impacting on them emotionally and socially?
But what many of us have failed to consider is how we as parents use social media to share our children’s lives with others. This is sometimes referred to informally as ‘sharenting’.
Cameras are now omnipresent, with most of us having one built into our smartphones that we carry in our bags and back pockets. It’s now easy to snap a picture and then share it via social media. We’re using social media like we once used family photo albums.
Facebook posts, Instagram shares and Snap Chat videos of our kids are shaping their digital identity long before they’ve set up their own Google account.
Now don’t get me wrong. This certainly isn’t a post to induce guilt if you’ve decided to share pictures of your kids online. Nor am I suggesting that we should never post pictures of our kids online. (I love seeing kids’ pictures come up in my feeds). Yes, I’ve done the same. It’s a personal choice.
Instead, I want us to pause and carefully consider the consequences, potential safety risks and (powerful) messages we’re sending our kids if we archive every moment of our kids’ childhoods, or their private milestones via our social media channels.
What messages are we sending our kids about taking and sharing pictures of other people if we’re constantly snapping and sharing snaps of them?
Are we missing the moment if we’re so preoccupied with digitally capturing the moment to our camera roll?
Are there potential safety risks if we share pictures of our kids online? Do we even know where can their images end up?
Are we becoming the’ parenting paparazzi’ who snap and share huge numbers and sometimes inappropriate or insensitive pictures and videos of our kids online?
What are the ramifications of parents sharing their children’s images and information online?”
Sharing our children’s images and information via social media stays with our kids into adulthood. Many refer to this as their ‘digital footprint’, but I prefer to use the term ‘digital DNA’. Every photo or video has digital DNA. As parents, do we have the right to curate our kids’ digital DNA?
Many people suggest that the scaremongering around sharing photos of kids online is unnecessary. They propose that parents have long snapped pictures of kids and had photo albums filled with printed photos. What’s the moral panic about social media becoming the digital replica of the family album?
Whilst there are certainly benefits of ‘sharenting’ there are also possible harmful effects, which have gone unrecognised by many parents because we’ve simply been swept up in this digital whirlwind.
Benefits of sharenting
Many families now have family members living interstate and overseas and social media is an easy and practical way to share photos of kids and important moments. I agree.
With some of my family living in Canada I love seeing pictures of my niece and nephew on social media every now and then. I also love it when my brother sends me a photo via SMS or Whats App, but I also know it’s a lot more time consuming than it is to post a couple of pictures to Facebook!
There’s no denying that social media can be a great tool to help us connect with family members and friends who we don’t regularly see.
Potential pitfalls of sharenting
However, there are also possible risks associated with sharenting. Some of the main concerns relate to identity theft (privacy risks), digital harvesting of kids’ images on predator sites (cyber-safety risks), sharing personal information about your child that should remain private (psychosocial risks), and revealing embarrassing information that may be misappropriated by others (psychological risks).
It has been suggested that 50% of images shared on paedophile sites have been taken from parents’ social media sites. We lose full control of where our kids’ photos end up when we share them online.
There are also possible legal risks. Steinberg clearly articulates a host of legal implications of parents sharenting in this comprehensive document Sharenting: Children’s Privacy in the Age of Social Media.
As a mum and researcher in this field, I’m also mindful of the habits we’re subtly teaching our kids if we’re always snapping photos and sharing them online. Are we teaching them that they always need to be on show and performing for us? Are we teaching them that we need to digitally archive every moment of our lives? Are we teaching them that their sense of importance and identity is determined by the number of comments, likes and shares on social media? These are some of the powerful messages that we’re sending our kids.
Common Sense Media .2015 Feb 20.”There’s more to life than likes. Make room for #realtime PSA.” Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sClQsKuafO4&feature=youtu.be&list=PL1YCGfBa9BUbBzAcmcQz51KSDQfSQtsPe
Whilst I don’t have clear-cut answers to these questions, there are some things I know for sure…
We need to teach our kids, from a young age, that an electronic thumbs-up (digital validation) isn’t a placeholder for their self-esteem.”
We need to remind our kids that it’s unhealthy to hook their identity and sense of worth on external validation in the form of likes and comments. We also need them to understand that they don’t need to capture and share every moment via their camera roll- some moments can be stored to their own personal hard-drive (their memory).
The reason I think we’re grappling with this as parents is that we’re new to social media and we’re making up the rules on the fly. We excitedly shared our kids’ personal and embarrassing stories on Facebook and Instagram. It’s easy (and sometimes cathartic and cheaper than counselling) to share your parenting dilemmas and challenges online.
Why do we do it? Social media caters for one of our basic biological drivers- connection. We’re biologically wired for relational connection. So sharing a frustrating parenting moment, or an embarrassing story of our kids, or a cute photo can meet our desire to connect with other parents.
But do our sharenting habits shape our kids’ behaviour? We know that because kids have mirror neurons they’re hard wired to imitate. Therefore, it’s highly likely that kids will model their parents’ digital habits. And if we’re constantly sharing personal details and photos of our kids’ lives and then monitor our feeds for external validation (likes, comments and shares) then we’re sending powerful messages to our kids too.
We’re also teaching our kids that it’s okay to share other people’s personal pictures and private stories (and it isn’t). This becomes the accepted norm. (This is why I’m hearing so many stories from schools and parents who are worried about kids who are embroiled in cyber-bullying or awkward online incidents where a child has shared an inappropriate photo of another child without their consent!)
I’m confident that most parents share pictures and posts on social media with their child’s best interests at heart. Sometimes, though I’m worried that we post and share in haste and without careful consideration.
What can you do if you’d over-shared?
If you feel like perhaps you’ve shared too much, it’s not too late.
// Sit down and give your child the opportunity to delete any embarrassing photos or videos.
// Archive any photos that you want to keep. Add them to a hard-drive or cloud storage. Then remove them from social media.
// Ask them permission to post in the future. This teaches them that they can control their digital DNA. This has the dual benefit of also teaching them that they must seek consent before sharing or publishing someone else’s DNA.
What parents need to consider before posting
// Permission to post
If your child is old enough to understand, always ask them if it’s okay to post an image before you post it on social media or share it online. My husband and I decided not to share many images of our kids and their faces on social media (this is a personal choice and I’m certainly not making any judgements about people who post lots of images of their kids online).
Sure, there are images that we both selected and I’ve used on my website and occasionally share on social media. Whenever I post a picture of my kids on social media I always ask their permission. Now my three-year-old is still so egocentric that he loves looking at himself given the chance, but my six-year-old is starting to be more discerning and has on occasion, asked me not to share a photo. It’s teaching him that his image is his own- it’s his digital DNA. This role modelling also equips your child with the skills to ask that someone not publish pictures of them. These are the basics of social media etiquette.
We also need to develop the habit of asking permission to post pictures of other people’s children. Many parents feel defeated when they find images of their children on social media, when they’ve made a concerted effort to not share images of their children. So always ask permission if you’re posting images of other people’s children. In some instances, there may be a court order in place that prohibits the publication of children’s photos online.
// Public vs private places
Did you know there are different laws regarding taking photos and videos in public or private places? Basically, you can take photos and videos in public places, so long as you’re not being a nuisance. With private places, people have the right to enforce rules. So always check that it’s okay to post images if you’re at a private place.
// Pause before you post
Kids can certainly be frustrating and embarrassing as times, but recording and then sharing those moments invades their privacy. I’m not suggesting that posting one funny picture of your child on Facebook will psychologically damage them, but what’s the cumulative effect when they look back at their childhood and realise what was curated and shared and commented on by others. Glennon Doyle in her book Love Warrior suggested that we “share from your scars not your open wounds.” When we post from our wounds we often regret it later on.
Also, ask yourself does this moment really need to be catalogued? What are the sacred, personal and private moments that you want to savour? Does the online world really need to know about every one of your child’s milestones?
Do you know who can see your photos? Check your privacy settings on social media and check these often, as they regularly change. You can change these so you have some control over who sees your photos. Remember, however, you lose full control over where your images may end up when you share them online. There’s no guarantee where your child’s photos might end up!
What other identifying information are you sharing when you take a picture of your child? Is their school logo visible on their t-shirt, or a street sign?
Is there anyone else in the photo? Remember, they may not want their image shared (or there may in fact be legal reasons from preventing their image from being shared). Is geo-location turned off? Online sharing of photos can sometimes reveal the location of where the photo was taken.
// Alternative sharing options?
Do you necessarily need to use social media to share your photos? There are other ways of sharing your photos of your kids without relying on social media. For example, Tiny Beans allows parents to share digital photos easily and privately via an app. It’s been described as an online photo journal. You could also use email, a secure online portal (that is password protected and requires authorisation to access) or even use multimedia messaging (SMS or Whats App) to share pictures with loved ones.
I completely acknowledge that this is difficult territory to navigate. I personally struggle to balance my drive to share our kids’ stories and family milestones and special moments, while still protecting their privacy and preserving the personal moments.
I’m not the fun police and suggesting that we shouldn’t share pictures of our kids. I love seeing kids’ pictures pop up in my feed (those baby pictures make me very clucky!). I think we need to be mindful of the potential risks, take preventive measures to ensure our kids’ pictures are safe and think about the powerful messages we’re sending our kids.
I think as parents we need to come up with our own personal policy about what we’ll snap pictures of and where we’ll share them (if at all).
One of the most important things I’ve realised is that we need to experience the moment first, capture and share later (if we choose). Not the other way around where we share and then think later (and sometimes realise we’ve missed experiencing the moment, or perhaps posted something in haste).