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The Dangers of Social Media “Sharenting”: Why You Should Think Twice Before You Post

In her new book, "Sharenting", author and legal scholar Leah Plunkett urges parents to stop and think before sharing family photos, stories, and data online.

If a baby is conceived and no one on the Internet sees a sonogram or cute picture dad’s belly next to mom’s baby bump, is it really happening? Judging by modern trends, the answer appears to be no. Posting photos, musings, and moments both small and large to social media is a rite of modern parenting. “Sharenting,” as it’s come to be called, can help make the unsteady and isolating new world of mother and fatherhood bearable — connection, commiseration, and advice are all waiting online. But so too are bigger questions. Should so much information be out there? Should a child have say about what moments are or aren’t posted? Is it right to have the world aware of every step of a child’s life before they’re even born?

In her new book Sharenthood: Why We Should Think Before We Talk About Our Kids Online Leah Plunkett, who is Associate Professor of Legal Skills and Director of Academic Success at the University of New Hampshire as well as a Faculty Associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, presents, with humor, insight, and a laudable broad-mindedness, a look at all concerns, both hypothetical and glaringly real, that parents should consider. Her definition of Sharenting is much broader than one might think and refers not just to the Instagramming, Tweeting, and Facebooking social  but also the data-sharing that takes place when anyone who deals with children — grandparents, teachers, caregivers — “transmits, publishes, stores, or engages in any other activities about children private information using digital technology.” This, she says, creates a very real dossier of information about a child that everyone needs to consider before posting.

Sharenting is an engaging, interesting read, one that doesn’t scold but rather encourages everyone to consider their own view of privacy and press pause for just a moment before they post, tweet, swipe, scan, or upload anything. What she’s asking us all, really, is to have conversations and discussions about values — what kind of sharers are you as a family and what lines do you draw? It’s an important conversation to have, especially as the boundaries blur ever so more.

Fatherly spoke to Plunkett about sharenting, the conversations new parents need to have about digital privacy, and the consequences that will arise if they’re not had.

What is your working definition of Sharenthood?

Sharenthood is currently seen as focusing on only parents and only social media. But I think it is much broader than that. I would define a sharent as not limited to parents, but a parent, educator, coach, grandparent —  really any trusted adult or caregiver who, and this is sort of the second part when I go broader, transmits, publishes, stores, or engages in any other activities about children private information using digital technology.

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So, in my book, literally and metaphorically, sharenting as social media is a huge part of it and it’s the one I think a lot of people are starting to think about more. The first day of school pictures that a lot of us posted or saw? That is obviously sharenting. But its also sharenting when your child gets on your bus and is tracked by a sensor-enabled swipe card or when your child is in the classroom using an app on an iPad. It’s also when your child goes to sports practice after school and the school is using an app to schedule practices or aggregate pictures. It’s also when your child comes home and you tell Alexa to make an announcement that its ten minutes until dinner. All of those uses and so many other ones of children’s private information. So, I go a lot broader than I think many others do in my use of the term.

I’m glad you do. There are so many things to consider. We wrote a piece recently about the trouble with hashtags and why parents need to be careful when tagging because a lot of back to school photos were hashtagged #daddyslittlegirl, which categorizes them amidst some NSFW material. But new parents are uniquely positioned to feel the need to share everything from sonograms and first steps and everything in between to find community, encouragement, commiseration. 

That’s such a pointed example. And it dovetails really nicely with the research that ran in the New York Times over the summer including some of my Berkman Klein Center colleagues that looked at YouTube algorithms. But to unpack your question, I am comfortable sharing that my kids are a little older. They are preschool and elementary school age but not so much older that I don’t remember just how monumental and transformative it is to try to get pregnant and find out you’re pregnant and be pregnant and have a baby and have an infant and have a toddler. These are mind-blowing transitions. I feel like mind-blowing was the word I used most when it happened to me. Forget “sweet” or “busy”. It’s mind-blowing.

So I am right there with everybody who is thinking my world has just been rocked and many ways that’s amazing but it others its really destabilizing and I need all the help I can get. And I think that impulse to connect is a wonderful one. So is the impulse to seek advice and reassurance and commiserate, all of them are so important and I don’t think we should get rid of them. But what I do think we need to do is think before we post.

I loved the example you mentioned in your book about having something on social media that pops up as a disclaimer to ask “Are you sure you want to post this?” It’s almost the online version of a drunk driving prevention ad.

Totally. Or even just a better nutrition-style label of “If you post here these are the three main areas where your data can be shared, repurposed, or aggregated.” And so what I guess I’d say to parents or expectant parents is just reflect on whether the benefit from the connection is worth the potential privacy harm as well as the potential harm to your children’s current and future opportunities.

One of the examples I give in the book is where parents who have disabled or chronically ill children, they may very justifiably decide that being a part of a Facebook group for folks in a similar situation or being very public about their journey through the hospital system has goals that are more important maybe even to their child’s very survival are more important than privacy.

That’s a stronger example, but all of us in our own lives, whether consciously or not, are making those decisions. So, in terms of the first-day-of-school example, maybe you make parents aware of that. And some may say “Oh that’s super creepy, I’m just going to text the pictures to the grandparents and my friends and not post it.” Or maybe they say “Oh, that’s a little weird, but there are a lot of pictures put there and the odds that my child is going to be targeted don’t seem that high, and I really get a lot of satisfaction about being part of this shared parenting experience.”

When it comes to parents posting and getting people to like and share and they get that dopamine hit from an “oh that’s so cute” response, it’s addicting. And it’s something that can push a parent forward and let them know that they’re doing okay. But do you think that parents need to ask for consent before they post? Or that they should not post about kids until they’re older?

I think both of the above. I think that parents should start involving children in these discussions as early as possible. And I do think that even kids who may seem too young to be aware of what’s going on, like preschoolers, are very aware that they’re having their photo taken and can have a sense of who’s seeing it. I think that modeling a healthy digital life is incumbent upon parents the same way we model good eating habits, good manners, good safety. Depending on how old a child is and depending on our personal values we may or may not give them veto power — we’re parents we don’t have to. But we can figure out and age-appropriate way and a way in our household to include them.

When our kids are too young to have any sense of what’s going on and parents are thinking about posting, say, the sonogram picture or the newborn picture, I really encourage them to have a brief little thought experiment which goes something like If my parents posted something like this about me and I found out about it when I was 12-13 how would I have felt? And if the answer is “I would’ve rolled my eyes because I was an adolescent and I rolled my eyes at everything”, then okay, that’s your best sense. But if the answer is “I would’ve been mortified, I couldn’t believe they would’ve done it.” Then don’t set your kid up for that. Put yourself in their baby booties. And think about not just how they feel now, but how their future selves are likely to feel about it.

What are some of the most egregious examples of over-sharenting you’ve seen?

DaddyOFive really strikes me as one that was the most egregious. DaddyOFive was a YouTube channel that I believe had over half a million followers and really their so-called family prank setup was child abuse and neglect. When viewers reported them, they actually did have their children, or at least some of their children, removed by child welfare. One of the things though that I found so alarming about this example is of course the abusive and neglected behavior it reflected but that they could amass roughly half a million followers. Credit to however many of those followers said something. But that the channel could’ve gotten even five followers with an overall orientation to family life that was really sadistic, that strikes me as more egregious than the individual channel.

I do think, and I talk about this a little bit in the book, that kids are hilarious, parenting is funny and there are times you have to laugh otherwise you’d cry or scream. And I’m all for that. But I really do have a problem with and it’s not just what I call commercial sharents, it could be all of those parents who participate in the Jimmy Kimmel Halloween candy prank challenge. I actually think if it would’ve been done by one child in school by another child in school it would meet the legal definition of bullying.

We’ve talked about the Halloween prank and prank culture in general and why it can be so dangerous. 

And I think that part of why I find the Kimmel example so insidious is that Halloween is this wonderful, protected space for play and make-believe. And there’s this huge buildup and in kid-land this can be in some ways the biggest holiday of the year. To mess with that? That’s awful. That’s vicious.

In Sharenting, you mention something that parents need to think hard about their personal definition of privacy. Is it transactional, contextual, or a fundamental protected zone? What should parents think?

I think parents need to consider what they value about intimate things for their family. You mentioned earlier that the line between digital and brick and mortar is essentially blurred but I might go even further and say that it’s essentially non-existent. And part of how this all snuck up on us is that, in the past, you could see zones of privacy quite literally. You went behind the doors of your house, you shut the doors, and you were in a private space. Now, we have our Fitbits, our smartphones, our smart thermostats, and a household of what some people call “enchanted objects.” So, parents need to think individually and also with co-parenting with partners ask what kind of intimate space — when we’re in the car, when we’re at church, when we’re at synagogue — how do we want that space to be and why?

These are important discussions to have.

Yes And this now gets into a broader understanding of privacy and so if the answer is we’re happy with anyone and everyone being part of that space, then you probably have a conception of privacy that isn’t very strong. If the answer is we want this space to be for us and by invitation only because we value intimate space as opportunity to play and explore and make mischief and mistakes, then you’re thinking about a different understanding of privacy that is interested in protecting agency and autonomy. Transactional is also something to consider. I think that’s one that parents adopt and they don’t really understand that’s what they’re doing. A lot of parents are unconsciously making the decision that to the extent they believe in privacy they’re willing to use private information as a form of digital currency to get free or low-cost goods and services and if that’s your privacy paradigm, that it’s transactional, I would say then even then make sure that you’re getting a good bargain.

I try to come at it from both directions simultaneously because I have found in my work with law students that, I’m sure this is true with all of us, that some of us are very global thinkers and some of us are very sequential. If I start with a big concept like “What’s your definition of privacy?” they can give me something and play out what it means in different situations. And then I have some students who’d look at me blankly. But if I asked for different examples of when they had to decide something should be private or not private, then their definition takes shape. And the same thing is true for readers of the book. Parents need to take a precious five minutes by themselves or with your co-parent and start brainstorming big picture. What kind of privacy does your family want?