The Rise Of Sharenting: How Googleable Is Your Child?
Grow Talk by Sofy Robertson
We hear a lot about the dangers of being ‘online’ for children and teens; the risks of cyber bullying, grooming and exploitation rising to the top of most parents’ and teachers’ worry lists. What we hear very little about, however, is the rise in sharenting and thus the role that parents have to play in making their children ‘Googleable’.
Most social media platforms have age restrictions in place; Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram all require users to be at least thirteen years of age and users will now need to be sixteen to use WhatsApp. Of course, just because an age restriction is in place, does not mean that it will be adhered to by the younger generation. A considerable amount of responsibility then falls to parents and carers to ensure they are vigilant of their child’s internet use and can prevent them from joining such platforms before the accepted age. It may seem somewhat hypocritical, then, that children under the social media age restriction are already present on platforms such as Facebook and Instagram long before the age of thirteen as a result of their parents.
It happens all the time; my Facebook and Insta feeds often contain pictures of my friends’ young children. I had never given it too much thought, pausing only to like, comment, or make ‘aww’ noises, feeling grateful that it is so easy to stay up to date with my friends and family and their children. It was only recently when writing an article for Safer Internet Dayand the issues surrounding consent that a vague feeling of discontent began to bubble under the surface.
To promote internet safety, SID took place in February and shared the experiences young people have online through an survey conducted by Censuswide. The findings surrounding consent and mental health were particularly revealing. 81% of 8-17-year-olds said they know when and how to ask permission to post something about someone else. When something was shared without their consent, a small proportion didn’t mind (15%) but 44% felt angry and a further 46% felt anxious or not in control.
It is of course not possible to obtain consent from a new-born or from a baby who cannot yet communicate. Arguably, even when toddlers and young children have the vocabulary to express themselves, they are unable to give informed consent for their images and videos to be posted online. Thus, the concept of sharing our little ones’ triumphs and funny moments becomes less positive and more concerning as we normalise their presence online way before they are able to consent to it, or even decide if they want a social media profile for themselves.
Reading an article in The Atlantic really brought these points home. Children who had grown up in the world of social media, but were not old enough to have access to the platforms themselves, were interviewed. 11-year-old Cara (a pseudonym to preserve her anonymity) discovered that her mum had been posting photos of her, without prior approval, for much of her life. She explained:
“I’ve wanted to bring it up. It’s weird seeing myself up there, and sometimes there’s pics I don’t like of myself.” (The Atlantic)
Cara’s story is not uncommon, in fact there is even a term for it – sharenting – used to describe the use, and at times overuse, of social media by parents to share content online based on the lives of their children.
For many children, their social media lives begin before they are even born, with almost a quarter having their ultrasound scans uploaded to the internet, according to a study conducted by the internet security firm AVG. A further report found that by the age of thirteen, the average child has more than 1000 pictures of themselves on the internet.
It is not at all uncommon for parents to create unique hashtags for their children, meaning that their images and videos can be viewed and shared outside of that circle of interested family and friends. Many schools and children’s clubs also have pages on social media or blogs on the internet where children’s images are shared. It is worth pointing out in the latter case that consent is obtained from the parents, but is it also obtained from the children themselves?
Much of what I had read, or experienced personally, came from the perspectives of parents and carers wanting to share updates with loved ones that they didn’t see often or who lived in different parts of the country, or even the world. The Atlantic article, however, approached sharenting from a different angle; from the perspective of just a handful of the children raised in the social media era and their decision to Google themselves for the first time.
11-year-old Ellen didn’t expect to find anything as she didn’t have her own social media accounts but was stunned to see years of swim scores and sports statistics and even a personal story that she wrote in the third grade. Ellen said that she was frustrated with all of the information about herself that had seemingly been posted without her consent:
“No matter what you do, it’s out there for people to know. Even if you’re just swimming—the rest of the world will know. My meet records are out there; now people know I’m a swimmer. [The internet] tells you where all the swim meets are, so that would probably tell my general location. It tells you my school. Parts of my story online were in Spanish. Now people know I speak Spanish.”
For some of the children interviewed, the experience of Googling themselves and finding content was an exciting one, sparking an almost competitive streak with friends and peers. For others, it acted as an impetus to get their own social media accounts to try and control the narrative that had already been constructed for them. And for a few, including Ellen, the feeling was so overwhelming that it caused them to retreat from the online world:
“Everyone’s always watching, and nothing is ever forgotten. It’s never gone.”
A further article by Huffington post, published at the end of last month, highlighted the concept of sharenting in the celebrity world. Actress Gwyneth Paltrow was called out by her 14-year-old daughter, Apple, for sharing a selfie without her consent.
Gwyneth shared a snap from the family’s ski getaway on her Instagram account, whose followers exceed 5 million. Apple responded by leaving a direct message for her mother in the comments:
“Mom we have discussed this. You may not post anything without my consent.” (Huffington Post)
Gwyneth did not seem particularly fazed judging by her public retort: “you can’t even see your face!” Despite Apple’s face being partially obscured by ski goggles in the photo, it is still a photo of her that was shared without consent. Judging by Apple’s comment, this is not the first time her mother has done so and, perhaps more worryingly, Apple had made her feelings on consent clear to her mother, who had chosen to disregard this.
There is hope, however, for a turning in the tide. In 2014, Europe’s highest court ruled that internet providers must give users the ‘right to be forgotten’. Under the ruling, European citizens can petition to have past damaging information, including crimes committed as a minor, hidden from Google search results. In France, strict privacy laws mean children can sue their own parents for publishing intimate or private details of their lives without consent. In the US, however, such protections are not in place.
Sharenting is out there, whether you are a parent with a small Instagram following or an influencer or blogger with thousands watching. Much of my further research contained articles defending sharenting, with the proviso that parents and carers took steps to keep their children safe (never revealing their school uniform, trackable locations etc.) Although safety should remain a primary concern, it is still the issue of consent that sits uncomfortably. Parenting expert Natalee Holmes explains:
“By posting about our kids online, we are creating an online persona for them – often without their consent, or even knowledge. We post silly or cute things they say or do, or even naughty things. We think nothing of sharing their pictures, yet most of us have “notify me when someone tags me in a picture” settings on our own accounts.” (Good Housekeeping)
Until children are old enough to advocate for themselves, parents and carers bear the full weight of this responsibility. Most parents and carers probably won’t think twice about choosing clothes and dressing their children (well, maybe in the first few weeks, but after realising your child is a poop and vomit factory, ease trumps fashion). Equally, most parents and carers won’t think twice about snapping a photo of their child in said outfit and posting it to social media. Perhaps it is not so much a concern that sharenting exists, but rather the ‘ordinariness’ of hitting ‘post’ or ‘share’ and making each moment in a child’s life available to the internet.
As 11-year-old Ellen said “nothing is ever forgotten. It’s never gone” so when a child becomes old enough to have their own social media account, will they identify with the persona that has been built for them on the internet? Will they be mindful about sharing their information, when so much of it is already available?
There are parents and carers out there who choose not to share images and videos of their children on social media, opting for private or closed groups to keep family and friends up to date with the lives of their little ones. Many parents and writers in the articles that I have read argue that in an age of such digital literacy, it is more unusual to have a child who has no online presence. So if the majority of children are online from the moment their blurry ultrasounds hit the platform, what’s the problem?
For the children, many now have a digital portfolio, one which they may be unaware of and one which they have probably not consented to. The photos and videos that took a few seconds to post have remained and can now be viewed by future employers, friends and partners, as well as bullies.
So is sharenting bad? Should you stop posting about your kids? That is a decision that lies entirely with you. We are undoubtedly part of an age that loves to share, from our choice of breakfast to what we’re wearing out on a Saturday, but perhaps we should question whether we want our children to be part of this.
Good Housekeeping offers some useful advice for negotiating the world of sharenting. This can be found below or on their website.
- As soon as they are old enough (‘old enough’ is a judgement that remains with you!), ask your children if they are happy for each picture or video to be shared.
- Ask yourself ‘would this photo be appropriate if it were an adult?’. If it would seem embarrassing for an adult, then it will be embarrassing for your child when they are an adult (if not already!) Those oh so cute naked bath photos spring to mind here…
- Ask yourself ‘If my child read this, would they be upset/embarrassed/hurt/angry? Even if your child is not old enough to read your status update or picture comment now, they will in the future. If it could trigger a negative emotional reaction, leave it off social media.
- Consider whether what you are posting is a fair reflection of the situation. Posting a video of a child having a tantrum that is out of context could paint them to be naughty and create an inaccurate representation of their character.
- Check your privacy settings. If you decide to go ahead and post pictures and videos of your children, ensure that only people you want to view it can do so. Photos of minors shouldn’t be public and remember that if you tag someone, their friends can generally see the post as well.
We would love to hear your views on sharenting. Comment on the article or leave your comments on social media.