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The Risks of “Sharenting”: Is Your Online Activity Putting Your Child in Danger?

Posting too much about your child, or "sharenting," can put your child at risk in multiple ways.

There’s been a lot of discussions in recent years about the dangers of social media and the internet for kids. And children definitely face risks online. But most of the conversation has focused on kids’ use of the internet – whether or not you should monitor their online activities, what kinds of phones are safest, if and when they should be allowed on social media, and similar topics. What hasn’t really been discussed is the role parents could play in endangering their kids online. Smartphones and social media make it easy for parents to record and share every aspect of their child’s life. But this “sharenting” could be putting your child at risk. It’s fun to share a cute video of your toddler on Facebook so your relatives can see – but have you thought through the potential ramifications of it?

What is Sharenting?

The term “sharenting” was invented relatively recently. It’s a combination of the words “sharing” and “parenting,” and refers to sharing (and oversharing) about your child and their life online.

Recording parts of your child’s life aren’t a new thing. First day of school photos are a decades-old tradition, and taking photos at birthdays or special events isn’t new, either. And it’s not a bad thing to want to capture some of your child’s life before they grow up. What is new is social media. It gives parents the ability to instantly share these special moments. And with social media’s instantaneous, the moment doesn’t even have to be special to share. It only takes a parent a few seconds to post a photo or type out an update and share every update, every mistake, and every personal detail on social media – where it will be permanently, and often publicly, available..

The pandemic has made these habits even worse. Being unable to meet in person moved a lot of normal interaction online. It became easy and convenient to post a photo or a status update to share news of your child with relatives you didn’t know when you would see again. Even though most restrictions are no longer in place, the habit is still there.

“Family Influencers” and Online Risks

For an extreme example of sharenting, consider “family influencers” or “family vloggers.” These are social media influencers whose kids feature heavily into their content, and their accounts wouldn’t be nearly as popular without their kids involved.

This type of extreme sharenting turns a child’s life into content to monetize and commercialize. It often focuses on the child’s most embarrassing moments, or on mean pranks played on the child, because that’s the kind of content that gets more views and likes. When people talk about the dangers of sharenting, family influencers often come up because the potential for danger is so much higher. Consider FamilyOFive, YouTubers whose cruel “prank” videos resulted in them being charged with child neglect.

If you’re like the vast majority of parents, you’re not trying to become a family influencer or abusing your children for YouTube views. But just because you’re not monetizing your child’s life through social media doesn’t mean you’re not putting them in danger. Even innocent, well-meaning updates shared online can put your child at risk. That’s why it’s essential to know how your posts could affect your child and what steps you can take to keep them safe.

How Sharenting Affects Your Child

Social media is a relatively new invention. The first generation of children to have their lives fully documented online are just now reaching adulthood. So we don’t have the full picture of what effects sharpening will and won’t have on their lives as a whole. But we do know some of what it does to children who are still young, and we can make some predictions about how parents’ posts may affect them in adulthood. And already the picture isn’t looking good.

Sharenting Causes Psychological and Developmental Harm

Kids make mistakes. They test boundaries. They explore and try new things. It’s all part of growing up. But they need space to do all that without it being exposed for family, friends, and strangers to see. If a child feels like they’re constantly being observed and their actions are constantly being shared online, they will limit what they try, avoid trying things because they might make a mistake, and feel like they can’t push boundaries. This awareness of being constantly monitored causes them to miss crucial developmental steps.

Desiring privacy is also a part of growing up, and a parent posting about them online can feel like an invasion of privacy. Some studies have shown children as young as four years old expressed being upset when someone posted a photo of them without asking. It only gets worse as your child gets older and their desire for privacy gets stronger.

Sharing things online that your child finds embarrassing can also be bad for them psychologically. Things that you think are cute, they may find mortifying. When someone shares these kinds of things about them, kids can feel embarrassed and ashamed, and it can contribute to depression and low self-esteem. If their face, body, or appearance is a focus of these posts, it can also cause body image issues.

Sharenting Can Put Kids in Real Danger

When you post about your child on social media, what kind of information do you usually share? Generally their first name, and their face if you post pictures of them. But consider what else you migth be sharing unintentionally. If your last name is associated with your account, someone could reasonably guess your child’s last name. A “happy birthday” post exposes your child’s birthday. A “first day of school” photo could reveal where they go to school. And someone savvy with computers could use open-source intelligence to find out where you live just from photos outside your house.

Think about all the different things someone could do with that information. All a criminal really needs to commit identity theft is a person’s name, birthday, and address. Even just a few pieces of information is enough to commit synthetic fraud, where a criminal uses data from multiple people to build a false identity. But expose enough information, even unintentionally, and someone could steal your child’s identity.

But it’s not just stolen identities you have to worry about. Child predators are also happy to have this information. Thanks to your posts, they can learn what your child looks like and their first name. They may even know their full name, their birthday, where they live, and where they go to school. This makes it much easier for them to find your child, in real life or online, and groom them for abuse. If you share things your child is interested in, they now have an easy way to open a conversation and start building trust. And predators can still exploit your child without contacting them. One study found almost half of images shared on pedophilia websites were innocent bath or beach photos that parents posted on social media.

Sharenting Undermines Your Child’s Future

The harm sharenting does doesn’t just affect your child now. It can also follow them far into the future. It may seem innocent to post about your child’s school or their pet, but those are some of the most popular security questions. Even as an adult, having that information online can put them at risk of fraud. One forecast says that by 2030, info exposed through parents’ posts will account for two-third of identity fraud that happens to young adults.

Another risk is profiling – using data to learn about someone’s habits and predict their future behavior. Profiling is already used today, and is most well-known in marketing. The more information about someone is available online (called an online profile or digital footprint), the more data is available for profiling. And for today’s kids, their digital footprint can start before they are even born, with a parent sharing ultrasound photos. The risk of profiling is that what you post now might affect your child’s opportunities later in life. Whether the profiling is done to help a human make decisions or whether it’s all automatic, your posts could factor into whether your child is admitted to college, is given access to credit, or is offered a job.

Data collection in general could be a risk. A recent report on how much information is collected from children reveals it’s much more than many of us think. It’s possible that if kids get used to handing over their information, they may be more willing to do it as an adult and put themselves at more risk. But ultimately, the first generation to have their lives completely documented online is just now reaching adulthood. It’s still not fully clear how sharenting and online exposure will affect them in adulthood.

How to Post About Your Kids Safely

There are a lot of really damaging consequences to sharenting. It’s important to remember that on the internet, nothing is completely private and nothing is completely deleted. Anything you post could end up in front of someone you may not have intended to share it with. It could also follow your child the rest of their life. You don’t want something funny you posted when they were small to affect their future prospects. It’s also important to remember that the information you’re sharing isn’t yours – it belongs to your child. And they deserve to have some parts of their life kept off the internet just like you do.

It can seem like the only solution is to never mention your kids online. But the fact that sharenting comes with risks doesn’t mean you can never post about your kids. It just means that you should think before posting everything your child does and take steps to keep them secure.

Keep Some Things Off Social Media

There’s some things that you should just never put on social media, sharenting or not. Things that are dangerous, criminal, or illegal should definitely not go online. But also beware of things that could embarrass your child or affect them negatively if they were revealed in the future.

As a general rule, happy occasions and milestones are generally fine to post about (as long as you follow the safety tips we talk about below). But negative or revealing information, such as health issues, behavioral problems, or school struggles, shouldn’t be posted on social media.

But what if you need support with one of those challenges or struggles? That’s completely okay – every parent needs some support now and then. Ideally you will have someone in real life, such as a friend or parenting group, where you can discuss it. But if you really need to post about it, look for an avenue where you can post anonymously to avoid linking your child to the problem.

Know Your Privacy Options and Use Them

Whatever social media network you use, know what your privacy options are. This can help you keep your posts about your child from making their way in front of people you don’t want to see them. Some accounts have options to be private by default or to limit who can see certain posts. For example, Instagram has the option to show your posts only to people who you have approved to follow you, and Facebook lets you limit the audience of certain posts.

It’s also important to know what other people can do with your posts. Facebook may let you limit who can see your post, but if someone shares it and their settings are different, your post can easily go beyond the limited audience you wanted.

Some networks have the option to hide your posts from Google and other search engines. Others let you limit who can interact with your posts. Check your privacy and visibility options. Find out how you can limit access on each network, how you can’t, and how other people could access your posts before you share.

Talk to Your Kids About What You Share

We previously mentioned how kids as young as four can be upset when someone shares something about them without telling them about it. If your child is old enough to understand what it means that you’re posting about them online, discuss it with them. Explain what you share and why. And if you want to share something new, get their consent first. If they say they don’t want you to post something, respect that. After all, they’re the ones who will have to live with it for the rest of their lives.

If you think you have a really good reason to post it, you can explain that. If you want to post it just so one or two particular people can see, ask if you can send it to those people privately. Your child may be more comfortable with you emailing a silly picture to grandma, for example, than having you post it online where their friends might see.

You can also invite them to collaborate on posts about them. Try something like, “I want to put a picture on Facebook for the family members we haven’t seen in a while. Can you help me pick one to share?” As a bonus, these kinds of conversations open avenues for further conversations about what they should and shouldn’t post when they get their own social media accounts.

Think Before You Post

One of the best ways to protect your child from the risks of sharenting is to think carefully before you post. Here are a few questions to consider before you share something about your child on social media:

  • Why are you sharing this? Think about the reason you want to post. “I want the family who couldn’t come to her third birthday party feel part of the celebration,” is a different kind of reason than “This photo of him with his spaghetti bowl on his head is hilarious.”
  • Would you want someone to share this about you? If this photo was of you as a child, or if this post was written by your parent talking about you, would you want it posted on social media? If you wouldn’t want someone sharing it about you, don’t post it.
  • Could it be embarrassing? Many parents would argue embarrassing their kids is part of the job description. But it’s one thing to tell an embarrassing story to your friends. It’s another to post that embarrassing event online publicly and permanently.
  • Is there anyone who shouldn’t see this, now or in the future? It sounds dramatic, but it’s becoming increasingly common for college admissions teams, employers, romantic interests, and even lenders to do internet searches on people. If this information coming up in someone’s search would harm your child’s prospects, don’t post it.
  • Do you want it to be part of your child’s digital footprint? Whatever you post will follow them forever. Even if it’s not embarrassing or actively harmful, what kind of picture does it paint of your child? Will it help them put their best foot forward, or will it hold them back?

Consider Sharing Without Posting

You’ve gone through all the risks of sharenting and looked at the tips to protect your children from the dangers. But that leaves you with a very narrow range of things you actually feel comfortable posting online. That doesn’t mean you’re only limited to sharing those few updates, though. You can also consider ways to share that don’t involve posting.

Say you want to share an update about your kid with grandma. Does grandma text or email? Both of those mediums can share both images and text with a reasonable amount of security. Maybe you could stop by over the weekend for a quick visit and share the update in person. If it’s a photo, would she appreciate having a copy mailed to her? Some families have a shared family Google Drive or Dropbox folder to privately share photos just among themselves. Others use a private, hidden, family-only Facebook group.

There are a lot of ways that you can share photos and information with other people without posting it on social media. This also requires you to think about another question: Who needs to see this? Depending on the update, it may be only a handful of people who really need to know or would be interested in this particular update. By limiting the number of people who see the information about your child, you can reduce the risk of that information being exposed publicly.

Make Protecting Your Child a Team Effort

You’re working hard to protect your child from the dangers of sharenting. But all your hard work won’t help at all if their other parent, grandparents, or friends are posting about your child or sharing your private posts with a wider audience.

To give your child your best possible protection, talk to other people who might share information about your child online. Explain the risks and dangers of sharenting and what steps you’re taking to protect your child. Then ask them to get on board and help protect your child, too. Ask them to take or not take specific actions, such as only posting photos in a particular private space or avoiding posting about certain things.

They say it takes a village to raise a child. It also takes a village to protect one. If you can get everyone who cares for your child on the same page when it comes to the risks of sharenting and the dangers of exposing a child’s information online, you can all work together to keep your child as safe as possible.

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