Sharenting: Will the digital footprint you've created for your child come back to haunt them?
From concerns about predators, fraudsters and consent, sharing pictures of kids has never been so easy yet so complex.
In the age of social media, there’s little that goes undocumented.
As anyone who owns a Facebook or Instagram account will know, this also applies to parenting.
From announcing the beginnings of a parenthood journey with ultrasound pics to snaps of milestones, birthdays, school graduations and all the silly, messy moments in between, many parents have established an internet presence for their kids before they even make their own accounts in tween or teen years.
This is what has become known as “sharenting” – online sharing about one’s kids or parenting experiences.
First and foremost, let’s establish one thing: nobody should judge, because how much or how little somebody decides to share of their kids bears absolutely no reflection on how much they love them. And again, in the digital age when we’re all sharing insights here and there into our lives, it’s only natural that the biggest parts of that (like kids) would be included in some shape or form.
Social media updates have also been a way for relatives and friends to remain connected to nieces, nephews, grandkids, godchildren and other kids they’re close to throughout the pandemic. Posting a photo to a social media account that your family and friends follow is easier than texting it to everyone individually.
There’s also the fact that posting about your kids or your experiences with them builds a sense of community between people who are going through the same things you are. It’s why parenting sites like ours, Facebook mam groups or blogs/social media accounts about parenting exist: people want to feel understood and know they’re not alone in all the highs and lows that raising kids brings.
But the large-scale posting of kids to social media has raised questions about children's privacy and digital identity – and for good reason.
A 2010 study found that in the US, over 90% of 2-year-olds and 80% of babies already had an online presence. In 2018, a report by the UK Children’s Commissioner estimated that parents will have posted around 1,300 photos and videos of their kids by the time they reach the age of 13 (that actually feels like kind of a low guess when you consider Facebook albums that sometimes have over 100 images).
That might not seem particularly concerning at first, but the report also claims that around one fifth of parents on Facebook have public profiles. Half are friends with people they don't really know. There's also the fact that many people's Facebook friends are nothing more than vague acquaintances or people they once shared a class with years and years ago in school or college.
All of stats are probably equally true for Instagram. Actually, Instagram is probably an even more publicised platform as it consistently blurs the line between professional and personal content.
HerFamily's own Laura Cunningham has over 22,000 Instagram followers, where she occasionally shares pictures of her son and speaks about her experience as a first-time mother. I was therefore curious if she had any reservations about sharing pictures or videos of Ziggy to social media, or if it felt natural given how a child suddenly becomes such a huge part of your life.
"I knew I'd have very little else to share for the first couple of years, and that's certainly come true," she says. "But I'm so busy that I only share a few seconds of video of him every few days, and a photo maybe once a fortnight.
"More than anything, it's sometimes nice to vent about motherhood and I've benefitted greatly from other people being honest about their struggles. It normalises it and makes everyone feel a little less alone in the madness.
"People can be quite judgey about this topic, and I get that, but it's often the people lapping up the content who give out about it. It's also worth recognising that the connection new mothers enjoy by sharing with others is sometimes the only connection they have the time or energy to enjoy. So lead with empathy and, if it's not for you, unfollow."
Still, privacy concerns are definitely something that play on her mind. "I've decided that, at a certain age, I'm going to stop posting pics of him. Right now, he's just a baby and he's always with me so I know he's totally safe.
"But I don't like the idea of him being recognisable at school, for example. I'm not sure what the cut-off will be yet, but I'll know in my gut when it's time."
If we think about the amount of people who have us as friends or followers on social media that we either don't really know or don't know at all, we have to then consider how many opportunities virtual or indeed actual strangers have to download or screenshot our posts – including those of our kids. We think of these posts as temporary and innocent, so it's difficult to imagine what real-life harm they could do.
When our kids are pretty much only with us apart from when they're at school, we believe they're safe as can be from both online and real-life predators because they're almost always supervised. But there's a different type of predator that might hang onto your child's images for an entirely different purpose: fraud.
According to the UK Children’s Commissioner report, research by Barclays bank suggests that by 2030 "sharenting" will account for two thirds of identity fraud cases. With just a name, date of birth (which can be found under birth announcements or birthday posts), and address (made easier by geotagged posts), fraudsters can save this information until the child turns 18 and then begin opening accounts. The bank estimates this will cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Smart devices also come with a scary amount of potential security breaches, so it's advised not to publicly post what they record. For example, you might innocently upload a cute video your baby monitor captured to Facebook or Instagram, but then people on those platforms can see what type of monitor you have and, coupled with your address, it's now easier to hack into the monitor's live video stream. This is made even more terrifying when you realise many of these monitors automatically set a weak default password without prompting parents to change it to something stronger that hackers wouldn't be able to guess.
Dangers aside, there's also growing concerns about consent. We've all been fairly mortified at some stage when our parents whip out a photo album of our butt-naked baby pics to show significant others or friends, but anyone born before the millennium has the benefit of knowing it's generally a one-time thing that'll be stashed away in the attic or some other dark corner once more. Well, unless you're the Nirvana swimming pool baby.
For children today though, it's quite different, and many are concerned about the overexposure of kids who have little to no say in how their image is used. YouTube has shown us the dangers of kids being turned into online money-making machines. But while the average parent posting to Facebook or Instagram is hardly trying to exploit their kids, it's argued that kids as young as four have a sense of self and should therefore have some degree of input as to what their parents post of them.
Stacey Steinberg, of the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law, legally analysed the issue of children's privacy in the digital age. She acknowledges that the connectivity the internet provides makes it near impossible to not have some sort of digital footprint for your child, as even parents without social media accounts still send pictures to grandparents and other relatives over the internet through the likes of WhatsApp or iMessage. So instead of encouraging parents to not post at all, she encourages them to instead speak to their kids about what they're planning on sharing.
"Parents who post regularly can talk about the internet with their children and should ask young children if they want friends and family to know about the subject matter being shared," she advises.
"...Children who grow up with a sense of privacy, coupled with supportive and less controlling parents, fare better in life. Studies report these children have a greater sense of overall well-being and report greater life satisfaction than children who enter adulthood having experienced less autonomy in childhood.
"Children must be able to form their own identity and create their own sense of both private and public self to thrive as young people and eventually as adults."
Ultimately, you can still enjoy the community and connectivity that "sharenting" brings – just beware the risks and be more conscious in what you share.