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WITH A FEW infamous exceptions, it’s safe to say most of the content we see about children on social media has a positive spirit behind it. Your friend’s photo of their first sonogram and your cousin’s lengthy ramble about their toddler’s temper tantrums each come from a good place: the desire to mark a milestone, seek support, share happiness, or build community. But shifting the focus from the people who make the posts to the kids portrayed in them reveals a problem.
The emotional, psychological, and developmental consequences of having one’s childhood—and all its growing pains—shared online are still unknown, as the first generation of kids conceived in the era of social media is only now coming of age. But studies and specialists are already warning that oversharing information about the kids in our lives might be fraught—both from an ethical and an online privacy point of view.
What is sharenting and why is it problematic?
A portmanteau of share and parenting, sharenting is the common practice of creating, storing, and publishing content about kids online. And before you think being childless exempts you, know that the term is not limited to parents. If you’ve posted a TikTok dance with your nephew, made photo albums on Facebook about your students, live-tweeted your babysitting adventures, or just recounted a funny thing some kid did on the street, you’ve sharented.
“All of that seems innocuous, so you must be talking about influencers and mommy bloggers posting photos and videos of their children 24/7,” I hear you saying. Nope. Sharenting goes beyond the people making a profit off the content they share—the possibility of exploitation and what some may consider digital child labor is only a fraction of the problem.
Think of it this way: A lot of the time, the kids in social media posts haven’t consented to having their picture or video taken and seen by people they know, let alone millions of others around the world. And even if they say it’s OK, they’re children. We cannot expect them to fully grasp the consequences of having their likeness and sensitive information posted online. Even educated adults have a hard time figuring out what terms and conditions and privacy policies mean, or gauging the social and psychological effects of broadcasting their lives.
The obvious negative consequences of sharenting are the criminal and illegal activities it can lead to. Consider a post made by a new parent that includes a photo of their newborn, the kid’s full name and date of birth, and the name of the hospital. All that information will probably still be there when that infant becomes an adult, readily available for anyone who wants to bypass the security questions for one of their online accounts. And problems won’t wait for adulthood: A 2011 Carnegie Mellon CyLab study found that child identity theft was 51 times more common than adult identity theft. This is likely because a child’s identity is a clean slate with no credit history, Harvard Law School faculty member Leah Plunkett says in her book Sharenthood.
Then there’s the possibility that the pictures you took of your child’s bath or your niece’s gymnastics tournament will end up on the wrong side of the internet. In 2015, an investigation by Australia’s children e-safety commissioner found that one image-sharing website for pedophiles contained at least 45 million files and “about half the material appeared to be sourced directly from social media.”
Beyond these clear risks, the effects of sharenting on the psychosocial development of children are unclear. Data is scarce as we wait for the first children raised on social media to become adults, says Stacey Steinberg, a professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law and author of Growing Up Shared. “Research, for the most part, is anecdotal—it is desperately needed,” she says. In her book, Plunkett theorizes that sharenting may thwart a child’s essential ability to explore, and that long-lasting posts may alter their personal narrative and sense of self, as many people they meet will go online and learn about them.
“Most parents do not overshare because they are trying to be malicious,” Steinberg says. “Most just have not yet considered the importance of their child’s digital footprint.” On the contrary, adults generally sharent with good intentions. Studies show sharenting is a way for parents to find validation and social support, and to help each other in an increasingly isolating landscape for child rearing. So instead of stopping everything and eliminating even the benefits of sharenting, Plunkett suggests four ways to post about the kids in your life in a more responsible way.
First, go analog when possible. This is especially important if you’re sharing private information about a child. It’s important to you, as a person in charge of a minor, to receive support and validation from the people around you, and even though posting about it online may be the most immediate option, there are other ways to go about it. If you want people to see a cute picture of your baby to mark their first year, consider printing and mailing copies to your family and loved ones. If you need help managing a child’s temper tantrums, maybe pick up the phone and call or text your pediatrician instead of writing a lengthy Facebook post about it.
Keep super-sensitive details to yourself
When it comes to sensitive information, just don’t share it. The things we post online have much longer lives than we realize, and details such as birth dates or the name of a child’s middle school could eventually make it easier for criminals and creeps to act against today’s children in the future. It’s unlikely these bits of information will unlock an account on their own, but they could be the missing piece that helps a hacker validate someone’s identity or answer a security question.
Make sure the kids are fully clothed
One of the most disturbing uses of sharents’ photos and videos of children is their storage and reposting on file-sharing sites that cater to pedophiles. Most of the time, these pictures show kids in common situations like playing at the beach, running around in the park, or practicing cartwheels in the backyard. But the truth is that a lot of these innocent images get sexualized by twisted people. This is why Plunkett recommends only posting images of fully clothed children. The Innocent Lives Foundation, which seeks to protect children against predators online, provides more guidelines on particular outfits they search for (costumes, tutus, and bathing suits, for example) and hashtags to avoid when posting.
Don’t include the child’s face
Finally, ask yourself if a kid’s face actually has to be in the photo. You can always use an emoji or a scribble to cover their features, but if that goes against your aesthetic, consider posting only pictures showing the back of their head or a slight profile. This will help them stay anonymous in the real world.
Get the kids involved
It’s easy to think of the internet as a sea of data where everything will eventually get lost, but reality suggests otherwise. Those of us who remember living without the World Wide Web can confirm: Everything we posted during the early days haunts us, just as the content you share today might haunt the children in your life several years down the road.
This is why getting kids involved in the decision-making process before you post something online can be formative in their digital education. Steinberg advocates giving children veto power over what you post about them online. Meanwhile, Plunkett says doing research with them and explaining—in a developmentally appropriate way—how social media works “models and supports practical and ethical digital citizenship.” This could also help them grow into adults who know the consequences of oversharing and have healthier relationships with online platforms. But whatever approach you take, keep in mind that as the only grown-up in this situation, you’re the one making the call to share or not to share. Kids are minors, and by definition, they cannot grant informed consent.
It helps to think about children not as a source of entertainment or an opportunity to harvest likes, but as individuals who will one day face the consequences of our decisions to share moments of their lives. You might think you shared something silly or cute, like a video of them falling asleep on the toilet when they were three, but for them it may turn into a social debacle in the school cafeteria. Or maybe you run into an issue with something else—something you can’t even think of right now—that prevents them from getting into the college of their dreams. That’s the scary part: the not knowing.
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