How has online sharing changed our identities, opportunities, and responsibilities as parents? Perhaps even more important, how has online sharing changed the landscape facing young people as they come of age? In this post Professor Stacey Steinberg considers these questions and outlines three categories of risk in relation to ‘sharenting’ that she has identified in her research. [Header image credit: C.M.-Hoffman_2-CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0]
Our social media networks serve as a parent’s “modern-day baby book“. From posting our ultrasound pictures to detailing our children’s accomplishments, our newsfeeds are filled with our children’s footsteps from cradle to college. Feeds serve not only as a place for us to document these special moments, but also as our guide; they’re where we turn when we want to ask our friends and elders questions about parenting. Yet despite social media’s power, alongside the benefits of sharing, there are risks.
My research shows that there are three categories of concern that parents and policy makers must be aware of when considering how adults share online about children. The first category deals with what I refer to as tangible harms – specifically the risks of data collection, digital kidnapping, and identity theft. The second category is much broader and focuses on children’s rights generally. My research suggests that children have an interest in maintaining control of their digital footprint. When adults choose to share information about them without their consent, they inhibit the child from being able to come of age able to define themselves on their own terms online. Lastly, parents and policy makers must consider the effect our sharing has on a child’s understanding of terms like consent, privacy, and digital citizenship. How do we want our children to go able sharing online once they have their own social media feeds? We must model appropriate behaviour if we expect our children to engage responsibly online themselves.
I’ve been an attorney since 2003, a mom since 2006, and a photographer since 2011. Over the years, my role as memory keeper and memory revealer have been constantly in flux. While sharing my way through motherhood, I began to question if my sharing choices were putting my children’s privacy at risk, and I started to question whether their life story was really mine to tell.
Children have an interest in privacy. Parents decide when third parties – like schools or doctors or even sports teams can share information about their kids. But a conflict exists when the parent is the one sharing a child’s personal information. In most circumstances, that might be okay, because often, a child’s interest and a parent’s interest will align. But that isn’t always the case. As law professors Benjamin Schmueli and Ayelet Blecher-Prigat point out in their groundbreaking article, Privacy for Children, sometimes children sometimes have an interest in privacy that is separate and apart from that of their parents.
Throughout my research, I’ve dealt with two significant questions that shaped my perspective: How has online sharing changed our identities, opportunities, and responsibilities as parents? Perhaps even more important, how has online sharing changed the landscape facing young people as they come of age?
The following best practices can guide parents as they share online:
- Be a well-informed social media user – read the privacy policies before sharing online. Many social sharing sites offer users the ability to select the specific audience for each photo or post shared. Additionally, some social sharing sites give users the option of setting passwords and having their online content hidden from Google’s search algorithm. There will always be the potential for data breaches, but understanding these policies is an important first step for families who wish to share with friends and family while limiting the future audience of their posts.
- Set up notifications if you share publicly about your children. Parents who have a public family presence online can set alerts to track where the information appears and monitor responses and third-party changes to their disclosures. We can then evaluate the website and determine if the shared content is appropriate.
- Consider sometimes sharing anonymously. Some organisations host websites providing advice and support networks to parents struggling to solve their children’s behavioural problems. These well-intentioned sites often invite us to share their stories in the hopes of helping other parents similarly situated. While there are benefits to sharing this information, and we may consider sharing and connecting without disclosing our full names or names of our children in order to protect their digital footprint.
- Don’t share your actual physical location when sharing online. Most social media apps do it automatically, and it can be tough to un-tag a location once it escapes into our newsfeed. We sometimes can also be tagged by others as being in a specific location. While child abductions and stalking originating online are rare occurrences, the risk is heightened when personal information is shared and potential offenders not only have detailed information about a child’s life, but also know the child’s actual physical location and the family’s routine.
- Give older children veto power over online disclosures. As is the case in many aspects of children’s rights, the weight given to the child’s choice should vary with respect to the age of the child and the information being disclosed. But parents should be mindful that even young children benefit from being heard and understood.
- Don’t share naked or near naked pictures of children. While most view bath images as “cute” and innocent, these images are easy targets for paedophiles and perhaps those wishing to profit from others seeking images of children.
- Consider your child’s current and future well-being. We must consider the effect sharing generally has on a child’s psychological development.
Over the years, I’ve concluded that there are no easy answers when it comes to sharing our stories. Being brave and vulnerable – both online and off – help us connect to one another. When we open our hearts (and our photo albums) to friends and family, our connections grow. When we share our stories with strangers, we forge new pathways and new connections with those similarly situated. But in the unique context of sharing about our children online, we serve as both the gate keepers and the gate openers of our children’s personal information. As the gate keepers, we are tasked with protecting our children’s privacy. But as the gate openers, we are deciding when and how to let their stories become part of a larger community. I set off on my research expecting to never want to share again, yet I came out of it with more questions than answers, and a strong sense that while there are perils of watching our children grow up on our social media feeds (and then on their own feeds), there is also so much power in the practice of sharing our lives with our communities. Our job – as parents and child advocates – is to harness that power, and to look out for the perils so that our kids can benefit from the digital footprints left in childhood’s wake.
This post gives the views of the authors and does not represent the position of the LSE Parenting for a Digital Future blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.