It’s been dubbed ‘sharenting’ – a form of parenting which has sprung from an ever-evolving digital world. They’re the parents who tweet, post photos and update their online circles about every aspect of their children’s lives, from their very first steps through to university graduations, marriages and everything in between.
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No previous generation has grown up quite so much in the public eye as today’s kids. In fact, many young children are on Facebook even before they’re born as no more than a blurry ultrasound along with an announcement about the impending new arrival.
If you’re a sharent who loves updating your friends and family about your children, parenting experts say you should stop to consider whether the things you’re posting about your child today could have implications for them in 10 or 15 years’ time.
What are the main dangers of sharenting?
Of course, there are some clear dangers with regard to posting photos in a public sphere, in terms of both paedophilia and revealing your child’s personal details, such as their full name, age and exact location. (Many photos are location tagged, and may show your house or revealing landmarks.)
Recent research conducted in the US has shown that about 40% of parents think it’s okay to post photos of kids in their underwear, not just on their private Facebook timelines, but on Instagram and similar social-media platforms where these photos could be in the public domain.
It’s easy to download and redistribute photos from social media, and parents need to be aware that their innocuous photos could be doing the rounds of far more sinister websites and groups. However, there are other dangers which are far less obvious, though no less serious.
Most of these revolve around creating an identity for your child, especially one which may come back to bite him or her in the future. 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.’
Your child’s digital footprint
Posting photos and updates about your child on social media creates a digital footprint and an identity for your child – often one which they have had no say in, and which you may not have considered. By the time children are old enough to use social media for themselves, many have a fully formed identity ready and waiting for them already, created by the information their parents have shared.
‘When it comes to children, we tend to post the crazy things, things we are proud of, or instances of them being badly behaved. In all cases, the image you create for your child is not whole,’ Holmes says. While this might seem harmless and cute for young children, remember that once something is on the Internet, it’s very hard to remove permanently.
Ultimately, the digital footprint we leave for our children should be one that they wouldn’t look back upon at a later stage and cringe or feel ashamed. On top of that, it should be one they would be happy for any future employer, friend or partner to be privy to.
Psychologist Melanie Hartgill agrees, saying that while the ‘labelling of children is not new’, the advent of social media has simply made this process easier and that the selective nature of social media ‘makes it very easy to present a particular “type” of child to the public’, even if that isn’t a true reflection of their personality. ‘Parents need to censor what they post regarding their children,’ says Holmes.
For example, if your child is adopted, you may want to keep that information private until your child knows and fully comprehends that they are adopted. Others may unknowingly let private information slip, and your child may find out in a way you had not intended, which is a quick way to betray their trust in you.
Holmes also mentions that one of the biggest dangers of sharenting lies in the lack of context for others. While you might know the background to a seemingly innocent post or photo you put online, it’s important to remember that if others don’t, it can paint you or your children in a negative light and have a detrimental effect on how they are perceived by the world.
This doesn’t just go for young children, either. Parents who tag teenagers in posts need to be sure that what they tag them in won’t cause embarrassment for their teens, nor give bullies ammunition. Children can be cruel and, as such, even posts that are years old could cause problems.
And because many parents are connected online to their kids’ friends, they need to exercise caution around the things they post about themselves too. One recent example was of a mother at a girls’ night out. Her friend posted a picture online of her holding a vibrator and laughing. This was spread among the children and led to bullying and embarrassment for the daughter.
Why you should think long term
As your children get older, these pictures and posts may become more than just a source of embarrassment for them, Holmes says. They could negatively impact on their future opportunities. When your child reaches university or job-seeking age, these profiles may still be accessible.
With a growing number of prospective employers and tertiary institutions checking social-media accounts before accepting candidates, we need to consider future implications of the posts we include them in.
Will your account of your eight-year-old copying phrases from Fifty Shades Of Grey after they accidentally got their hands on the DVD still be out there when they’re CEO of a big company? What if your now-grown-up child stumbles upon a post where you unfavourably compare them to a sibling, or ask for recommendations for a specialist for their physical, emotional or mental-health issues, which they thought had been kept private?
Part of the way children form identities is by having private information about themselves – and keeping it private. We can easily rob our children of that by oversharing on social media, and quickly blur the boundaries between public and private information.
The danger is that this new digital-identity development may have lasting effects on a child, even into adulthood. As Hartgill stresses, ‘things on the Internet are permanent’ and children have ‘every right to say they don’t want a photo to be posted online. You might think it’s cute, but they might not and these photos could haunt them into their teenage and adult years.’
Does this mean an end to all posts about your kids?
So should you stop posting about your kids? Ultimately, that decision lies with you. However, Holmes advises that you keep a few things in mind when weighing it up. ‘Remember that your children are small humans, not “just kids”. They will have self-esteem issues like the rest of us, and they will also want to portray themselves in the best light one day,’ says Holmes.
Use the same criteria when posting about your children that you would want your friends or family to apply to you if they were going to upload a pic or write a post about you. Imagine you had someone following your every move and posting it publicly? How would you like them to portray you? What bits would you skip?
Holmes says you should treat your children with the same consideration. ‘And as soon as they are old enough, you should start asking, “Are you happy for me to show people this picture?”’ advises Holmes. ‘We teach children to protect themselves and their bodies from a young age, and protecting their online identity is just as important.
It is not something most of us grew up thinking about or worrying about, but it is a real-life arena that most of our children will, or do, exist in, and it needs to be considered as such.’
4 questions to ask before posting about your child on social media
‘Would this photo be appropriate if it were an adult?’
Remember, don’t post anything that would seem embarrassing for an adult, whether you were the person seeing the photo or the person in it. Yes, that means you should think twice before posting a naked bath photo.
‘If my child were to read this, would they be upset/embarrassed/hurt/angry?’
Even if your child is very young and can’t read your latest status update or comment, pretend that they could both read and understand it. If it would trigger a negative reaction, leave it off social media.
‘Is this a fair reflection of the situation?’
Remember to represent the whole situation fairly. If you’re posting a video of your child having a big tantrum, don’t paint them out to be naughty, unreasonable or badly behaved if you’ve somehow created the reaction or there is a fair reason for it.
‘Are my privacy settings correct?’
If you decide to go ahead and post a picture of your child, make sure that only people you want to view it can do so. Where minors are concerned, these photos should not be public – and remember that if you tag someone, their friends can generally see the post as well.