Social media has made “sharenting” easier than ever. But just because you can do it, should you?
A new national survey from the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital found that more than half of mothers and a third of fathers acknowledge that they share the ins and outs of raising their children online. We’re talking everything from cute photos and anecdotes to pleas for help raising their little monsters.
And more parents who share information about their children online are more interested in the ways “sharenting” can help them cope with parenting concerns than they are concerned about the potential negative consequences for their children, according to the survey of 569 parents with children who are 4 or younger.
It’s easy to understand why sharenting has become so pervasive. Sharing on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and other platforms has made communicating online easy — even for parents whose time is a scarce commodity. And for parents who may be dealing with new or difficult challenges associated with their children, comfort is never too far away.
It’s no wonder that tweens and teens are now turning away from the social media platforms that their parents are beginning to infiltrate. Take Facebook: For much of the last 11 years, parents have shared the ins and outs of their children’s lives on that platform with impunity, leaving teens to live in a world where they are inheriting a social media identity that they had no hand in creating (beyond acting out during the terrible twos and sitting still for mortifying grade-school photos).
“By the time children are old enough to use social media themselves many already have a digital identity created for them by their parents,” Sarah J. Clark, associate research scientist in the University of Michigan’s Department of Pediatrics, said in a statement. “On one hand, social media offers today’s parents an outlet they find incredibly useful. On the other hand, some are concerned that oversharing may pose safety and privacy risks for their children.”
According to the survey, parents seem willing to call out other parents who over-share online. Three-quarters of parents say they know someone else who shares too much information about their child. More than half of those people classify the information as embarrassing or divulging too much about the child’s location.
But what really amounts to too much sharing online? Is there a difference between sharing stories intended for the consumption of Grandma and Grandpa and exposing children to future embarrassment?
And are we handing over the privacy of our children for the instant gratification of online comfort, even as some parents lobby social media platforms to do more to protect their children?
Unless parents are careful about guarding their children’s privacy, it is easy for well-intended sharing to go wrong.
A recent Fast Company report highlighted the disturbing trend of Instagram users “role-playing” with stolen baby photos.
And stories about the perils of over-sharing are easy to come by.
In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012, writer Liza Long told her painful and personal experience with raising a child who suffered from mental illness. The post was originally written on her blog Anarchist Soccer Mom and accompanied by a photo of her son, who was given the pseudonym “Michael.” It quickly circulated across the Internet as “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” after a line Long had written: “I am sharing this story because I am Adam Lanza’s mother. I am Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’s mother. I am James Holmes’s mother. I am Jared Loughner’s mother. I am Seung-Hui Cho’s mother.”
Later, Long noted that the words were intended to be more of a semiprivate diary. It just didn’t stay that way:
I wrote the words, ‘I am Adam Lanza’s mother,’ not to the world, but to myself. Before I could get help for my son, I had to admit how desperately I needed it. That first step — acknowledging to myself the gravity of my family’s situation, our tenuous and faltering grip on the external trappings of normalcy that I so desperately craved — is what ultimately allowed my son to get the help he needs.
While that may have been her goal, Long’s essay was roundly condemned by other mothers who viewed it as exploitative and damaging to her son’s future thanks to the Internet’s haunting permanency.
The recent conviction of noted mommy blogger Lacey Spears in the death of her young son Garnett is also perhaps an extreme case that shows how sharenting can enable exploitative behavior. Spears, who was convicted of poisoning her son with salt, had blogged and tweeted about the difficulties of coping with her son’s health challenges.
The University of Michigan researchers note that parents may be divulging not just their struggles in raising their children, but also their child’s physical location and habits, which can be fodder for predators. And perhaps most saliently, parents who think they fully understand how to protect themselves and their children online often don’t, and they accidentally open the door for inadvertent disclosures. The ever-changing landscape of online privacy means that what you think you’re protecting today might be “fair game” tomorrow.
“Parents are responsible for their child’s privacy and need to be thoughtful about how much they share on social media so they can enjoy the benefits of camaraderie but also protect their children’s privacy today and in the future,” Clark added.
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