I often wonder: If we saved all personal profiles on Facebook in a time capsule, would future generations assume every child was a medal-winning, snuggly, veggie-loving genius? Or would they think kids went to bed too late, woke up too early and constantly fought with their siblings?
Welcome to the age of "sharenting"—a time where parental successes and failures don’t actually happen unless it's documented for hundreds of “friends” to witness.
A recent study from the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital discovered that more than half of mothers and one-third of fathers discuss their children on social media. And 72 percent of those parents surveyed claim sharing their struggles and triumphs publicly makes them feel less alone.
That's an undeniable upside of social media—parents who once felt alone in their struggles with postpartum depression, or isolated by the early days of having a newborn, or feel rundown by the daily grind of parenting can often find a sympathetic ear. The power of hearing someone else say “I’ve been there” can often lessen the emotional upheaval, and calm fears of failure.
We turn to social media armed with questions about daily life. According to the study, parents with kids ages 0-4 are talking about sleep issues 28 percent of the time, nutrition and eating tips 26 precent of the time, daycare/preschool 17 percent of the time and behaviour problems 13 percent of the time. Happily, more than 60 percent of adults surveyed said social media helped them worry less about their skills as a parent.
The downside? We're giving our children an online identity—one that they haven’t chosen for themselves or given consent to. Social media has given us the tools to track our kids’ successes and failures, alongside our own, which feels good in the short-term, but may be limiting to our kids in the long-term. How will your 12-year-old son feel when his aunt brings up that adorable toddler tantrum he had when he was three? Will your daughter ever be able to live up to the glory of her elementary track star days that were so lovingly recounted on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter? Do you really want your BFF’s former high school boyfriend recognizing your child on the street from a hilarious video that you posted two weeks ago? How much autonomy do our kids get to grow into themselves when we have already exposed who we think they are to our 338 “friends”?
Even the parents in the survey recognize that their kids may be upset by what they've shared—more than half of parents worried their kids would feel embarrassed in the future. Three-quarters of parents also identified “oversharenting” by another parent as a potential problem, including people who share embarrassing stories or post inappropriate photos. I can easily think of parents I know who compulsively overshare—whether it's an image of their kids' sleep and bathroom habits, or their dating crises.
Two-thirds of parents involved in the study are concerned about privacy issues—they worry strangers will uncover private information about their child or will share photos of their kids without permission. And they should worry. “Digital kidnapping” is an extreme example of sharing photos gone wrong—strangers nab photos of kids online and repost them on their own websites or profiles as if they were their own images. Photos of kids undergoing cancer treatment have been stolen by others to set up fake fundraising websites. There's even a Facebook group that makes fun of "ugly babies."
How we balance our desire for community and affirmation, and our kids’ privacy, is something haven't perfected yet. We assume we have a right to tell our kids’ stories for them—but we don’t. And as they get a better grasp of social media, we may find ourselves surprised to see what they post about us in return.
Originally published March 18, 2015
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