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Growing up under the watchful eyes of his mother’s newsfeed

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I talk about my kids on social media. I do it because I am proud of them, and of course I do it because I think they are adorable.

And sometimes I do it to help further my own agenda. Such as the time I posted a picture of my son’s art project: a picture of Martin Luther King Jr., one of his heroes. He wrote under his hand-drawn picture: “I have a dream that Martin Luther King’s dream will always come true.” I shared it the day after Elizabeth Warren, while reading from a letter by Coretta Scott King, was forced to sit down. My son’s artwork, created weeks before, offered me hope that, indeed, the truth would still be seen, even if only to my Facebook newsfeed.

Does it matter? Am I oversharenting?

Parenting in the Facebook age: Should we rethink how we share?

My son, still in kindergarten, will be proud to see his artwork hanging on the pantry door when he gets home. I bet when we FaceTime his grandparents, he will excitedly walk himself (and the phone) to the kitchen to show off his wonderful words. I’ll tell him that Uncle Joe and Cousin Sally really loved his artwork, as well. But it is unlikely he could comprehend just how many people have now seen his project, and it would be challenging for me to explain just how many people liked and loved his words on Facebook. He certainly would not understand the complexity that surrounded my decision to share, nor would he process the reality that I didn’t only share it because I was proud of him — but perhaps because I was proud of us. Indeed, his story is inextricably intertwined with my own.

As he gets older, he will likely come face-to-face with my online disclosures. Whether he gets a Facebook account of his own or whether he simply scrolls back into my newsfeed, one day he will see the pictures I’ve shared, the stories I’ve told. And I hope he will appreciate this online journal of sorts that I’ve created.

Social media adds a unique dimension to what once was simply a rite of passage — a part of growing up under the watchful eyes of parents and grandparents. Today, children grow up before a larger audience, coming of age under the watchful eyes of a parent’s newsfeed. And children aren’t always okay with this. In fact, many children wish their parents would think twice before sharing their special moments on social media.

In a recently released study that explored how parents share things about their children on social media, more than one in four told the researchers that by sharenting, their parents made them feel either embarrassed, anxious, worried or sad. The researchers also spoke with children whose parents do not regularly share about them on social media how they would feel if their parents now decided to start sharing their pictures on social media. Almost half told the researchers that they thought the pictures would make them react negatively; they, too would feel embarrassed, anxious, worried or sad.

Along with my kindergartner, I have an older son, and I wonder how he would respond if asked about my social media habits. As a group, the study found that by 9, kids had strong reactions to sharenting. Their reactions grew even stronger by age 12. Many in the study were frustrated because their parents did not ask them first before posting about them on social media. Researchers at the University of Michigan have made similar findings. Children want parents to ask permission before sharing their stories and pictures online.

What can we glean from these research findings, and how can we use them to make better online sharing decisions in the future?

First, parental autonomy is a fundamental principle of our society. In most circumstances, parents are best able to make decisions for their own families, and while the law could regulate sharenting in extreme cases, in the normal course, few would suggest that parents not be permitted to share about their children online. However, there are those who disagree. Some countries have passed laws limiting what information parents can share online about their children. France, for example, has privacy laws that prohibits parents from “over” sharenting. Under France’s privacy laws, it has been reported that parents could face lawsuits, fines, and possibly even jail time for posting personal information about children online.

Kids have always been embarrassed by what their parents shared with family and friends, but by sharing on social media, the information will remain long after the initial disclosure is made. Online revelations can exist long into the future, and could show themselves in a variety of ways over the course of a child’s life. Indeed, parents today must concern themselves not only with how a parenting story might affect a child’s well-being today but also how such a disclosure could affect a child years into the future. While right now I can’t see a likely circumstance whereby the picture like the one I shared this morning would have any negative effect, but other pictures, homework, stories, or requests from for parental advice could potentially do otherwise.

Indeed, sharenting offers society many positive benefits. I, along with many other parents, benefit by sharing our stories online. We’ve created new communities, connected with faraway family members and friends, and advocate for far-reaching and critical support that benefits families, children and communities alike. We find help on social media when our children are struggling, and we offer advice when our friends are in need. Parents who have shared online have offered me support and encouragement, and have made me feel less isolated when I’ve faced my own parenting struggles. I’ve felt more confident and supported when I’ve personally shared online about my kids.

My kindergartner will have a very different reaction to my sharing his school work or photos on social media than his fifth-grade brother will have. This is likely because his ability to comprehend such disclosures is vastly different than that of his older brother. While young children cannot grasp the consequences of online sharing, my research suggests that older children should have a say in how their parent talks about them on social media. They want this say, and it would be prudent for us to allow them to have it.

I’m a parent, a scholar and a photographer. My desire to focus my attention on sharenting found its genesis in self-reflection. While there are no clear answers to guide parents as they make these decisions for their families, this information can empower parents to make well-informed decisions that benefit their children, their family and society generally. These studies, and child-centered discussions surrounding these new issues facing families in the digital age, are precisely what our children need from us as they come of age in today’s connected world.

Stacey Steinberg is a legal skills professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. She is also a writer and a photographer. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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More reading:

Why I stopped writing about my children

It’s time to think about how our family records and stores memories