The toddler licks out the icing bowl and grins at his mother, chocolate smeared from ear to ear. Seconds later a photo (filtered ‘vivid warm’ to look as cute as possible) is beaming its way beyond the four walls of their home to her 800+ Facebook followers and friends. Welcome to the world of ‘sharenting’ – the term coined to describe the habit of parents sharing – arguably, oversharing – pictures, videos and the latest news about their offspring.
Recent surveys have found that on average, parents post almost 1,500 images of their child before their fifth birthday, and 81% of children have an online presence before the age of two. Toothy smiles, off-key singing, fancy-dress costumes, un-coordinated dances, temper-tantrums, school concert performances, potty-training – a record of their lives shared with family, friends … and even strangers. (Over a third of parents admitted that over 50% of their Facebook friends were not ‘true’ friends they’d say hello to if they met in the street. And an incredible 8% said posts were completely open for anyone to see.)
For many 13-year-olds who sign up for their first social media account, it comes as an unwelcome surprise to discover they have a digital footprint. Some children may be happy enough with this, but others are less so. When actress Gwyneth Paltrow posted a selfie of her and her 14-year-old daughter, Apple, on a skiing trip, the post received over 150,000 ‘likes’, but Apple was upset. She wrote on her Instagram account: ‘Mom, we have discussed this. You may not post anything without my consent.’
Some of us might think that, as the mother, Paltrow had every right to share pictures of her daughter, but others believe that children deserve a right to their privacy. When fourteen-year-old Sonia Bokari saw the pictures that her mother had posted on social media throughout her childhood she said:
I felt utterly embarrassed, and deeply betrayed. There, for anyone to see on her public Facebook account, were all of the embarrassing moments from my childhood … I had just turned 13, and I thought I was just beginning my public online life, when in fact there were hundreds of pictures and stories of me that would live on the internet forever, whether I wanted it or not, and I didn’t have control over it. I was furious; I felt betrayed and lied to.
Celebrities’ Instagram accounts reveal different attitudes to posting pictures of their children online. Holly Willoughby, George and Amal Clooney, and Rio Ferdinand are just a few who, if they do post photos, ensure they are taken from behind or that their kids’ faces are pixelated.
Other celebs have been less discreet, posting often, and even being accused of editing the shape of their child’s nose or slimming down the puppy fat. This practice has been rightly criticised, but maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to point the finger. Whilst we might not manipulate photos to make our child’s eyes bigger, many of us apply a ‘filter’ in terms of the message we seek to convey through our posts. There is nothing wrong in using digital technology to enjoy and share the precious memories of family life, and of course we will be proud of our children and want to celebrate their successes, but before our thumb hits the ‘share’ button, it might be worth pausing to consider our motives.
We know that the cute picture of our six-year-old playing the ukulele could go viral, but who are we really doing it for? Parenting is not a competition. If we only share edited pictures that present our family in the best possible light or obsess over our total number of ‘likes’, we can communicate to our children that their value is tied to the approval of others.
As parents, we need to build our children’s sense of self-worth by ensuring they know they are loved unconditionally and accepted completely just for who they are and regardless of looks, achievements, successes or failures online or otherwise.
As well as creating an online footprint for our children, another aspect of ‘sharenting’ that has raised concerns is when parents inadvertently share personal information that makes their children vulnerable. Posting a picture of a child outside their home, at the nursery gate, or wearing their school blazer can lead to them being identified, and opens the door to the possibility of ‘digital kidnapping’, where strangers use publicly available photographs of children for fraudulent or sexual purposes.
What Parents Can Do:
- Have a conversation with your child about what (if any) photographs they are happy for you to share on a public forum. Agree some guidelines you will all stick to.
- Respect your child’s feelings and, in particular, check that your post won’t cause embarrassment, hurt, or have the potential to lead to bullying. Remember that you are contributing to their online reputation and that this will may have an impact of future educational and employment prospects.
- If you want to share a photo featuring another child, check that their parents are happy for you to do so.
- Review the privacy settings on your social media account, turn off geotagging, and check that you are not inadvertently revealing personal information that could lead to your child being identified by strangers or online predators.
- Celebrate your child, but remember, parenting isn’t a competition.
- Think before you share!
 Digital Birth: Welcome to the Online World’, Business Wire, 6 October 2010, https://www.businesswire.com
 Sonia Bokhari, ‘I’m 14 and I quit social media after discovering what was posted about me’, Fast Company Magazine, 18 March 2019. https://www.fastcompany.com/90315706/kids-parents-social-media-sharing
 ‘Sharenting: Holly Willoughby and Robbie Williams against the idea’, BBC Newsround, 12 February 2019, https://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround
Katharine Hill is the UK Director of Care for the Family. She speaks and writes on family matters and is a regular author for the Huffington Post. She has practised as a family lawyer and is a member of the board of the International Commission on Couple and Family Relations. Katharine is married to Richard and they have four grown-up children. Katharine’s fully revised new edition of Left to There Own Devices? is available now at www.muddypearl.com