It was the night before my eighth-grade trip to Washington. I’d been looking forward to this trip for months, but it wouldn’t be the teenage years without a little humiliation. A mere 12 hours before I was scheduled to board the plane, I got my first period.
What my mother did next still bothers me. After tearfully handing me a box of pads, she retreated to her bedroom while I finished packing. I heard her muffled voice a while later and picked up the landline phone to find her and a friend deep in conversation about my first step into womanhood. I was overwhelmed with hurt and panic. Who else had she told? Did my grandparents know? My aunt? Oh God, had she called my dad?
It turns out that my mother didn’t irreparably scar me with this incident; I was fine, I suppose, and I’ll concede that I wasn’t meant to hear the conversation in the first place. Even so, I remain grateful for a tech-free childhood and adolescence, one without the added pressure of surviving Mom’s latest Facebook post. That’s an uncommon existence in today’s hyper-connected world: A 2010 survey found that 92 percent of 2-year-olds in the United States had a digital footprint as a direct result of their mothers’ online sharing. A separate 2016 survey revealed that children were twice as likely as parents to report that adults should not “overshare” by posting information about them online without permission.
On a scale of online openness, my family falls into the strict category. There are no photos of my son’s unobstructed face on my Facebook feed or my husband’s, and I don’t share images of him on my business blog. When I write about parenting, I choose broad topics that don’t require specific details about his life. Friends and family are similarly banned from sharing personal details and photos on social media.
Beyond data privacy concerns, including possible identity theft for overexposed children, the hard line I hold is one of loyalty, and the hesitation that rests in unanswered questions: How might my actions affect my son’s future? Will a schoolyard bully taunt him with an embarrassing baby picture? Will his teacher form a half-baked opinion if I hastily vent about an isolated tantrum? Will a university or employer one day pass him over because of something I posted 20 years ago? And if these things happen, can our relationship survive so many breaches of trust?
I don’t know the answers, so I spoke with several experts about best practices for parents who choose to share. Here are their suggestions.
Uphold a sense of security. The initial choice to share our kids online is like any other parenting first — we are behaving more in earnest, less in expertise. Though perhaps done with good intentions, excessive openness comes with certain risks, according to Eileen Kennedy-Moore, a psychologist whose work focuses on parenting and children’s social and emotional development. “When everything the child does or thinks or says is up for public consumption, it makes them very self-conscious about how they come across as they get older,” she says.
The earliest feelings we have about ourselves are heavily influenced by our relationships with parent figures. For Susan Newman, a social psychologist and author of “Nobody’s Baby Now: Reinventing Your Adult Relationship With Your Mother and Father,” it’s a crucial point. “The major issue here is not so much a question of affecting development as it is a parent’s inserting a wedge, even a wall, in the bond with the child,” she says.
Mom and Dad’s online activity can present an unnecessary hurdle for the parent-child relationship, particularly for tweens and teens. Kennedy-Moore notes that parents should be aware not only of what they share, but of how negative responses via the comments section can affect their child’s sense of self and security. “I can’t think of any aspect of development that is helped by a constant critical audience,” she says. “Home needs to be a place where we don’t have to present a particular image. We can just relax and be imperfect and loved.”
Consider your motivations. So, online sharing comes with risks. Does that mean every parent who posts a child’s baseball photo and batting average is an addle-minded narcissist? Of course not, but it’s important to examine your reasons for divulging information — and with whom. “Parents can’t be impulsive about this,” says Richard Weissbourd, developmental psychologist, lecturer and faculty director of Harvard University’s Making Caring Common project. “They really need to be mindful of what they share and why. I think there are a lot of traps, and it can be at risk of confusing our needs with our kids’ needs,” he says. “It’s important to be clearheaded: ‘Is this really what my kid needs, or is this about me? And if it is about me, are there any risks for my child?’ ”
For parents who simply crave community and family connection, the occasional online update (with permission from an older child) poses little emotional risk. On the other hand, sharing in service of your own ego and self-esteem are fodder for a less wholesome experience. This darker craving can stem from a parent’s personal need for attention and acceptance. “We do bring our childhoods and vulnerabilities and regressions into adulthood,” Weissbourd says, “and we need to do the work of being self-reflective by talking to people we know and trust about our blind spots.” For a parent who isn’t sure about where their need to share originates, Weissbourd suggests talking to an objective friend or therapist, and when in doubt about sharing — don’t.
Model respect and appropriate boundaries. The crux of the entire “sharenting” issue is boundaries. As parents, we should exist as a natural barrier from the outside world, but the very nature of social media muddles the once-tangible lines of home — the “we” vs. “everyone else.” If significant details of a child’s life are made public, Kennedy-Moore says the concept of boundaries will be difficult to grasp in the child’s relationships with others. It could cause them to have difficulty learning to say no and vocalize discomfort. Learning “boundaries is crucial in child development,” Kennedy-Moore says. “It’s part of defining who we are.”
Sitting down to establish privacy rules is a wise move to ensure that everyone feels comfortable with the online family dynamic. According to Newman, teaching and respecting those boundaries mean giving your child permission to advocate for themselves. “Bonds between parents and children are fragile, and I would think parents would want to make sure their child is okay with what they share. Go for ‘permission granted.’ ”
Social media isn’t going anywhere, and we can only guess how the information we share today will be used in the future. Absorbing the risks and making a judgment call about what works for your family is perhaps the only solution to this open-ended equation.
What remains certain, however, is the need to prioritize your child’s safety and trust in you. And perhaps it should also be a given that no one “needs” to know about your daughter’s first period.
Sarah Szczypinski is a journalist living in Seattle. Find her on Twitter @SarahSz23.