Is sharenting dangerous? What you should know before posting about your kids online again

March 6, 2020
Is sharenting dangerous? What you should know before posting about your kids online again

Even before your child gets a phone of their own, there’s a good chance they already have an online presence, thanks to the adorable baby photos you posted to Facebook or the cheeky toddler snaps you shared on Instagram. 

“When parents inadvertently or intentionally create a digital dossier for their child, it’s called sharenting — and a lot of the time, it happens before the child is even born,” says Lori Getz, a cyber education consultant and author of "The Tech Savvy User's Guide to the Digital World." “Everything from registering for baby gifts and entering due dates on websites to creating email accounts for unborn children and sharing ultrasound and newborn photos on social media falls under this category. It’s a lot.”

The word sharenting can be traced back to at least 2012, when a piece in the Wall Street Journal raised a question about “oversharenting.” While most moms and dads are apt to think of sharenting as uploading photos of their 3-year-old in an adorably mismatched outfit, Leah Plunkett, associate dean and professor at University of New Hampshire Law and author of “Sharenthood: Why We Should Think Before We Talk about Our Kids Online,” says in the Care.com Equal Parts podcast, that these sweet photos and funny quips are just the “tip of the much larger iceberg.” 

“Sharenting also includes things that we do with our kid's information through smart devices in our homes, educational apps in their school, as well as all the different ways the things on our bodies, in our homes and in our schools are passively or actively picking up private data about our kids, analyzing it, acting upon it and sharing it again with third parties,” says Plunkett.

Not sure if you should post that funny photo of your son trying carrots for the first time or leave it in your camera roll? Here, top experts weigh in on how to navigate the overwhelming world of sharenting.  

Is it dangerous to post photos of your child online?

The dangers of sharing photos or information about your child online cast a fairly wide net, and a lot of the risks are subjective in terms of how scary or probable they are. 

“There are a variety of opinions on ‘dangers’ when it comes to sharing photos of kids online,” says Dr. Dipesh Navsaria, associate professor of Pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. “For instance, any publicly shared photographs of children could be collected by individuals who are interested in sexual gratification from looking at children. By that argument, one should never share any photos of children, ever. This of course would eliminate the pleasure many have in sharing photos with family and friends.” 

Another concern surrounding posting information about kids on social media (though more so kids’ use of social media) is child abduction. However, research has proven that this type of crime is hardly relegated to internet activity. 

“The data clearly shows that the greatest risk to children in terms of abduction is usually from people already known to the child, rather than the feared stranger ‘out there on the internet,’” says Navsaria. 

A 2017 study found that parents were the perpetrators in more than 90% of kidnappings and abductions. However, according to Plunkett, there are two dangers of sharenting that, while less serious, are more pervasive. 

The hacking of information. Just because your child isn’t old enough to spell, nevermind operate their own Twitter account, it doesn’t mean their private information can’t be obtained. 

“An example would be a hacker's ability to get a social security number that may have been let out in a data breach,” says Plunkett. “Combine that with other private and identifying information about a child that parents or loved ones are putting out into the universe, and someone can apply for a credit product or service in that child's name.”

The selling of information. Just as data brokers — legally and invasively — aggregate your information from social media and sell it to third parties, they do the same for your kids.

“In 2018, the Center for Law and Information Policy at Fordham Law School did a study that found data brokers had information about kids as young as 2 years old,” Plunkett says. “It even had information on 14- and 15-year-old girls who needed family planning services. We don't know all their sources of information, but we should understand that a number of those sources are or might be things that parents and other loved ones are sharing.”  

Does sharenting have psychological effects on kids?

In addition to the outward risks sharenting poses, posting photos of your child online may also affect them psychologically — and, unfortunately, it may be too early to tell the exact repercussions because this is all so new. 

“We are in a new age where the generation whose parents grew up on social media are starting to have children,” says psychotherapist Ali Hamroff, of Liz Morrison Therapy in New York. “While most parents’ photos are innocent, it’s important to remember that children are having their photos shared on their parents’ social media pages without consent. While, again, this is all new, there are concerns that sharenting may violate kids’ senses of privacy later on and cause a lack of trust with their parents.”

Sharenting also can affect a child’s sense of self, according to Plunkett, because, in many ways, their identity has been created for them. 

“Children should have the ability to develop their own identity in the world and have the silly, stupid, misguided, mischievous things they do, even the mistakes they make, be forgotten about as they become older,” Plunkett says. “Instead, we're doing the opposite. We’re creating a digital record that will live far beyond that embarrassing temper tantrum they had when they were 4.” 

At what age do kids want privacy?

According to Navsaria, there isn’t a “magic age” when parents should stop posting about their children online. However, as they get older, it’s respectful — and fosters trust — to ask before sharing. 

“Each child feels differently in terms of what they feel comfortable having shared about them, as well as where and how, so the best thing to do is ask,” he says. “They may not want you to post a million photos from graduation day, but allow you to post one picture, if it’s really important to you.”

For Getz, it’s never too early to ask your child if they’re OK with you sharing photos of them. 

“Parents should ask as soon as the child can respond,” she says. “I asked my youngest when she was 2 if I could send a picture to grandma and she said: ‘I have to see it to approve it!’ If parents role model respectful behavior, kids will follow suit.”

Also, the way in which you’re sharenting may be a determining factor in whether or not you should get approval from your child.

“Do you have to give a kid a veto if it's the holiday picture that you're going to text to grandma? I don't think so,” Plunkett says. “Should you think about maybe giving your kid a veto if it is what you think is a cute picture at Disney World, but you've got a middle schooler and they are really embarrassed of how they look in the Mickey Mouse ears? Yes, give them a veto.”

Can you stop someone from posting pictures of your child?

Even if you made the decision not to leave a digital footprint for your child, that’s not to say someone else won’t. Whether it’s school (which almost always sends out a waiver before the start of the year) or your child’s friend’s parents, there’s always the risk of having your kid’s photo posted at the hand of someone else. A good way to mitigate this and gain control is to speak up to caregivers, grandparents and other parents from the get-go — even if it’s uncomfortable — and de-personalize things.

“I actually do have conversations and always have with babysitters and nannies explaining we don't do social media with the kids,” says Plunkett. “If you say it upfront when you're first meeting someone, they tend to be fine with it. It does get harder down the road if it started [and] you have to rein it in.”

Plunkett also advises uncomfortable parents to broach the subject in broader terms, so it doesn’t feel judge-y or like you’re finger-pointing. 

“In this day and age, just open up the newspaper and you're guaranteed to hear a data privacy-related story,” Plunkett says. “Bring it up as a conversation point so it's not ‘I don't like you're doing,’ but instead: ‘Hey, I'm learning more about what's happening in the world. It's making me feel differently about the pictures that we all think of as being so cute. Can we just hit a hold on those?’”  

Are any platforms truly private?

Spoiler alert: Even if you have the privacy preferences set on the most common social media sites, they’re not really private. 

“The popular free platforms are mostly the same,” says Getz. “If you’re not paying to use it, then your information is their monetary value. The best thing to do is always read the terms of service — especially the privacy policy — to determine which platform is best for you.”

And even if you’re not using social media, there’s always the chance of information being breached. The key is deciding what you’re comfortable with. 

“If it is digital, it is not private,” says Plunkett. “For example, I have a running text thread with two of my best friends, which contains pictures of our kids, cute anecdotes and anecdotes where we’re blowing off steam. We're not making it open to the world. I trust my two friends 1,000% not to screenshot it and reshare it. Could metadata be extracted from my text message exchanges? Sure. Could a phone get hacked into or lost? Sure. I think the risks of all of those things are fairly low so I'm comfortable sharenting in that way so I can stay connected to my friends, but that’s still sharenting.”

What questions should parents ask themselves before posting?

According to Getz and Hamroff, parents should consider asking themselves the following before posting a photo or story about their child online:

  • Am I willing to give up control of this content? “As soon as you post, you no longer have the right to control what happens to your content,” says Getz. “The companies get to use the information for data mining, and your friends and followers can always take screenshots or re-post or retweet information that you have shared. Privacy means control, and once you put something out there, you give up the right to control it.”

  • Would I walk around telling strangers about this momentous event? “If you wouldn’t, don’t post it,” says Hamroff.

  • Would I want this posted of me? If the answer is no, don’t post that of your child. 

Finally, Hamroff recommends getting a second opinion. 

“Ask a friend or your significant other whether they think it’s an appropriate picture, tweet or story for you to share,” she says. “They may have a different perspective as an outsider.”

Is it ever OK to sharent?

Sharenting may have a bad rap, but there can be good that comes out of it, too. Parenting can be a weird and lonely time, and as many moms and dads can attest to, connection during this time is often vital. 

“I never thought I’d be the mom who posted photos of her baby online, but when I was up nursing my daughter at 2 a.m., it kind of just happened,” says mom of one Kristen Lee, of Brooklyn, New York. “It was always comforting when another mom would comment on a post of mine, letting me know I wasn’t alone.”

Sharenting also can be incredibly important for families with special circumstances. 

“There are plenty of times where values may be more important to us than privacy, for example, building human connection and promoting health and safety,” Plunkett says. “We have seen incredibly powerful sharenting from families who have children with disabilities or developmental delays or families whose kids have been victims of gun violence. For those folks who engage in sharenting, they are making it a call for change, a call for advocacy.”

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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