My kids had online footprints long before they had ever dipped their toes into the social media pool. Everything they did, including their achievements, medical concerns and silly antics, has graced my Facebook feed since they each entered the world. I documented my journey through motherhood in public blog posts and sappy op-eds, many of which I now regret.
About six years ago, as I continued sharing my way through motherhood, I began to question my constant use of social media to document and display my every move as a parent. And I began to question my constant use of social media to document my children’s every move as children. I broadened my lens and looked at “sharenting” not only as a mom, but also as a children’s rights scholar.
I began to wonder: Are their images, which occupy far more space on my news feed than they do on my living room walls, really mine to share?
Armed with a law degree and a passion for juvenile law, I used my own life as a case study and spent the next several years researching the intersection of a parent’s right to share and a child’s interest in privacy. I have documented my journey and the lessons I’ve learned along the way in my new book, “Growing Up Shared.” To each their own, to be certain, but based on everything I’ve learned, here are some of the key takeaways I am trying to implement in my own life, and that I would recommend to others.
Practice what you preach. Because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, many of our kids are relying on technology now more than ever to communicate. With the kids at home away from their friends, it is tempting to micromanage their every keystroke. However, if we are going to spend so much time thinking about what our kids are doing on social media, we also need to spend time thinking about our own choices online.
There is a connection between how we share as parents and how our children share with their own social media accounts. Children model their parents’ behavior, and when we are persistently checking for new “likes” or “followers,” they notice. Children tend to mimic these observed behaviors in adolescence and adulthood. It is possible that our constant photographing, sharing and checking social media for feedback is teaching them that this sort of constant connectivity is expected and appropriate.
As kids engage more online, they need us to be good role models. We can do this by asking them before sharing their pictures, by putting our phones away during family time and by pausing before posting personal information. We have a lot to learn, and our newfound need for connectivity during the pandemic is not making the task easier, so we need to give ourselves grace as we figure it out.
Give kids veto power. ComRes, working in partnership with the BBC, conducted a survey to understand how families share online. The study found that by age 10, kids had strong reactions to sharenting. Their reactions grew even stronger by age 12. Children want parents to ask permission before sharing their stories and pictures online.
Before posting about our kids, it is critical that we ask them how they feel about us sharing their story. Even young kids deserve “veto power” over what parents share. We want our kids to grow up valuing privacy and respecting others. One of the best ways for us to teach these lessons is to value and respect their privacy now.
Devorah Heitner explains in her book “Screenwise” that by asking your kids for permission before posting about them, you are teaching them valuable lessons, including self-control, respect and empowerment. “Your child will have a better understanding of this complex social media exchange … because you’ve modeled it,” Heitner writes. This will help kids make better decisions on their own when navigating social media’s tough terrain.
Take care not to alter their memory. Help kids see life from their own perspective, not from the perspective of your camera lens. Seeing a picture or watching a video too soon after an experience can fundamentally change the experience for us. Nadine Davidson-Wall highlighted this concern in her paper “ 'Mum, Seriously!’: Sharenting the New Social Trend with No Opt-out."
As we create curated versions of childhood, we risk altering our own memories, and probably the memories of our children. Davidson-Wall explains: “The public presentation of selective and edited photos of children, controlled by parents, shapes the memory of these children, influencing self-definition.”
When we are constantly documenting their lives, we are, in some ways, rewriting their childhood. I want my 7-year-old to remember the first time she went to Disney World on her own terms, rather than having it defined by the curated view I chose to put on social media.
Guard their privacy. Parents often ask me what they can do to protect their kids against the risks posed by data collectors, online child predators and identity thieves. Unfortunately, if you do choose to share, it is nearly impossible to avoid all risk. However, there are things you can do to mitigate the risks and protect their privacy.
Avoid sharing personally identifying information, such as full names and birth dates. Think twice about sharing embarrassing pictures. If your child has a medical condition and you need advice, consider limiting the audience with which you share. Delete old posts once they are no longer helpful for your family, and store your photos somewhere other than in public spaces.
There are many good reasons to share online, and sometimes it is hard to get the benefits from online sharing without accepting some of the risks. Our kids rely on us to make well-informed, calculated decisions before we tell the world information they may one day wish we had kept quiet.
We are the first generation of parents to raise kids in a world that includes social media, and our kids are the first generation to grow up shared. I may regret some of my early choices, but I also look back on my news feed with gratitude for its existence, and I keep sharing with optimism for the future. Through my work in this field, I have recognized that, like with so many other aspects of parenting, social media is a tool. Used appropriately, it helps us build relationships and connect with one another. Our job — as parents and child advocates — is to harness that power and look out for the perils, in the hopes our kids will benefit from the digital footprints we’ve created during their childhood.
Stacey Steinberg is a legal-skills professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law and the author of the new book “Growing Up Shared.” Portions of this essay contain excerpts from her book.