Recently, my parents have been sending me pictures from my childhood. (yes, that’s my kindergarten picture, and I miss my Brylcreem!) By coincidence, they sent this picture of me at about the same time that I was reading an article on “Sharenting.” “Sharenting” defines parents (and I would add grandparents) who frequently share photos and videos of their children and grandchildren online. Sounds harmless, doesn’t it? A sonogram, videos of an infant’s first sounds or a toddler’s initial wobbly steps, or pictures of that first time when a child decides that she or he is old enough to choose how to dress for pre-school (what fashionista decided that pink sweat pants, an orange shirt, and green tennis shoes don’t match anyway?).
But what happens when children learn from their friends or by searching for themselves online that they have an extensive digital footprint created by their parents or other family members without their knowledge and consent? Social media sites have minimum age requirements for children (enforceability is a separate issue), and schools that send pictures of children’s activities during the day first must get the permission of parents or guardians. As adults, we feel violated when a stranger hijacks our online identities, especially because it’s often done with malicious intent. It’s, therefore, time to ask, “Although most parents or grandparents have only loving intentions in sharing darling photos, are there limits to sharenting? At what point does cute and harmless potentially become disrespectful and damaging?”
The identity development of tweens (pre-teens) and teens can be a rocky unfolding journey. There’s nothing new about that, and I can remember arguments with my parents in junior high school about the length of my hair and the style of jeans. But those discussions were private, many of my childhood photos are still stored in a shoebox and not in the cloud, and I was the one who controlled my personal narrative with my friends during my teen years. I didn’t have to worry about pictures that my parents posted of me online without my consent or private comments that became public. But now, tweens and even those younger are discovering that they have a robust online existence being curated by parents, grandparents, and sometimes their schools.
I understand the urge of grandparents who want to proudly showcase their grandchildren. And for today’s parents who have been raised in a digital world, I can imagine their desires in wanting to share moments of their children’s lives online. I’m not making a judgment – there are many sides to this issue. But I do know that a perennial parental role is setting boundaries with children that change as they mature. We hope to guide our children to become caring, responsible, empathetic adults who are respectful of others. If parents and grandparents don’t set their own boundaries about what they share online about their children and grandchildren, what are we teaching them about how to set their own online limits?
We know enough already about the emotionally isolating effects of social media on young children. I now understand that we need to elevate the importance of a question that some psychologists are asking: is sharing always caring? Does putting content about your children or grandchildren online have the potential to shock their healthy childhood and adolescent development and create unanticipated emotional risks? We’ve permanently moved from the days of storing printed photos in a shoebox to sharing them on online sites like Dropbox. But until we start to better understand that sharing an innocent photo may not be so innocent after all, maybe we can adapt the carpenter’s maxim, “measure twice, cut once” to Sharenting: “click twice – and if you post, cut now.” After all, with discussion, dialogue, and discretion, we can always decide to post later.
(You can read more about these topics in my new book, Connecting Generations: Bridging the Boomer, Gen X, and Millennial Divide, available for pre-order now!)