Safer Internet Day 2017 is tomorrow – on the theme of ‘Be the change: Unite for a better internet‘, encouraging all stakeholders to ‘join together to make the internet a safer and better place for all, and especially children and young people.’
This afternoon, I was contacted by BBC Radio Manchester about the possibility of discussing the current concerns re ‘sharenting’ on their breakfast show – it has already been knocked off by other more local concerns, but I thought I’d share a few of my thoughts – I haven’t got time to over-work them, so they’ll be a bit rough and ready!
Sharenting was a new term only briefly referenced in my 2014 book Raising Children in a Digital Age:
The Parenting Place in New Zealand notes that many parents are announcing their pregnancy online (around 25 per cent share the news via the first scan), posting the child’s birth, first words, and first steps, creating a digital shadow before the child is even born. By the time they’re two, more than 90 per cent of children have an online history. A new term, “Sharents”, has been created for parents who appear to share every moment of their child’s life. Mashable gives some useful advice to such parents, and to those trying to cope with the “baby overload”: don’t believe that others have “perfect lives” with their children. Raising Children in a Digital Age, p97
By 2015 it was clearly in use, see Alicia Blum-Ross’s definition as “the slightly awkward term for when parents share photos and stories about their kids online, via social networks and blog.”. It appears to have become a bigger concern since then – just do a quick search of Google News:
Mummy Bee gives some good advice, as she wrestles with the topic herself “It’s one thing if you occasionally post a picture or two of your child at his birthday party or a video of her taking her first steps. But once you share picture after picture of moments that might embarrass the kid later on, you’re officially a sharent.” It’s not only about pictures, if you share about other aspects of life, is that problematic too?
As always, there’s a seeking to understand what we are doing ‘in a digital age’, where the digital as ‘as real’ as anything in the physical world. There are historical precedents for the kind of things that we share – the old photo albums, the photos on the mantelpiece, the dodgy stories (told in wedding speeches, etc.), but the digital, and the easy availability of quality cameras without associated processing costs, have made it easy to share every aspect of our lives very easily.
Another extract from my book, with the proviso that we should all be becoming more au fait with the privacy settings on our software (and pressuring companies to make it easier to do so) – and being very clear about who is in the groups, etc. that you share this content with:
When you are using the internet, or advising your children, consider your privacy. Mark Zuckerberg, the man behind Facebook, has said that privacy is “no longer a social norm”. This can be seen from the way that Facebook encourages us to connect with more and more people, in order to enable them to continue to draw in advertising (which funds their business model). The web is a place that “rewards openness”: assume that everything you write online is potentially for public consumption (in the same way as anything that is written on paper could be photocopied and shared, or spoken and recorded). Don’t get paranoid and refuse to share, but establish your criteria. Mine would be: Am I happy for my parents to see this? Or any children I work with? Would I mind seeing it on the front page of a newspaper (or shared publicly around Twitter, as Randi Zuckerberg did)? Could my worst enemy do anything with what I’ve written? None of this should stop you posting, but it should cause you to pause and think. Just because you can, doesn’t always mean that you should. Raising Children in a Digital Age, p88
Bearing in mind that ‘the cybersphere is increasingly reflecting the social, economic and cultural inequalities of the offline world’ Barker & Jane, Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice, 2016, p467, I’m always keen to look beyond “what is the technology doing to us”, to thinking how we are individually and corporately shaping technology, as well as the wider context that we are working within… and always particularly interested in historical parallels!
I used to think ‘reasons my son is crying’ were funny, and to be honest, sometimes I still do – in the same way as You’ve Been Framed – maybe. It’s all too easy to get precious about these things, especially when we’re fed a steady media diet of pornography, grooming and privacy losses, but I have become uncomfortable about the more ‘social shaming’ aspect of these kind of posts. A friend said that they had used Facebook to reprimand their child for not replacing the toilet roll, and agreed to take it down (particularly as the child was tagged in the photo of the empty toilet roll – visual = important you see!).
There’s always the question of whether taking photos is at expense of ‘real interacting’, to which I think is often not the case, but if an entire blog is about every nuance of a child’s life, where does that put us (we have laws in place for children of celebrities, what about the children of ordinary children – this is where organisations such as 5Rights are raising the debate re: access to removing content)? As always, it’s all too easy to focus on the negative of digital aspects of life, when there’s real positives in sharing stuff (with trusted groups, good privacy settings). Sharing is something that many have grown up with (as we did, maybe, when we picked up the phone as soon as we got home from school). With family literally spread in four corners of England, it’s nice to SEE people in between times, especially my nieces and nephews – it really makes up for only physically being able to see them infrequently – although one can choose which platform (e.g. Whatsapp family group).
I also think it’s really helpful sharing some of the ‘messiness’ of life, and knowing that you’re not the only one dealing with kids doing x/y/z, and for those who have particularly difficult home lives, as always with the ‘aware who sharing with’ (you wouldn’t leave your child alone in a public park would you – that’s much of how I describe much of social media), it’s cathartic and ‘no more than a chat’ in the social space… or is it? How much damage is done by being negative about children online?
I wondered also if this is similar to the ‘exam howlers‘ that are shared by teachers and academics (part of keeping selves sane whilst marking, and on occasion, wondering if you were speaking in Klingon!) falls within this remit. Partly it’s whether it’s traceable to you/the student, and whether it’s done in humour or cruelty – or does it not matter?
One friend highlighted the importance of joining a ‘nice non-judgemental group‘, and had created her own for child related/family issues. Seen as a great space for support, to share photos of kids, ‘memes to cheer us up but also ask each other advice all the time. It’s good to know you’re not the only one – when you can feel like you’re messing up . It’s a closed group for safety and I chat with every new joiner. I do get ‘odd’ profiles apply occasionally (fake profile photo etc) and refuse them instantly.’ Most seem to appreciate the safe-space support, and recognise that it’s about the parents as much as about the kids.
The importance of support groups as a ‘real source of support and sharing, useful contacts and advice’ was highlighted by another friend, who indicated it’s a shame that we live in a culture in which child abuse, etc. is so prominent, that e.g. photos from school plays were withdrawn in recent years, and we have become more fearful about all kinds of things.
I really don’t like the idea that we live ‘over-curated lives’ and appreciated this thought from another friend:
Not at all sure that this is what you’re after, but I get really distressed when parents share nothing positive about their children and complain lots. I’m well aware that parenting is really tough and it’s a good way of getting support at a time when it’s difficult to get away from kids/home to meet friends etc. But I worry about the impact it may have on the kids if they get to see it and/or if people in the kid’s life will relate differently to them because of it. Also, as someone who is trying to get accustomed to the fact that I won’t be a parent having spent my entire life assuming I would be, I feel for all the people reading this stuff who would give anything to have sleepless nights etc if that was the reason.
Others disagree that parents should share so much at all:
I’m not really comfortable with pictures of kids who are too young to consent to it being on the internet at all. While parents are supposedly responsible for their kids, imagine getting into your teens and your on-line persona having already been created by someone else. With those school pictures from when you weren’t allowed to choose your own hairstyle…
But overall, the feeling seems to be that can share, but be careful what sharing, considering how you don’t make the child identifiable (e.g. their schools, their medical conditions, etc.), and not saying anything you wouldn’t say to your own child (at some point) – and they may even enjoy being part of the online conversation (excited by the likes/comments a post gets):
There are specific FB groups where I raise particular concerns and ask advice but I am very careful because some of them have large memberships and can be “competitive” and bullying. I am incredibly uneasy about the YouTube families which share so many details of their lives online. I know that means that Little Person thinks that is an acceptable thing to do and doesn’t understand why I won’t let her do similar.
They’ll always be people who overshare in every aspect of life – digital and physical! It’s a complex topic, and one that we are working out in real-time. It’s possible to become over-cautious, but also over-careless. Let’s think carefully about what, and who, we share with!
The final comment on my Facebook that made me giggle in response to the ‘moral panic’ type issues raised in this post “Make the Internet Great Again!” “Build a firewall and make Microsoft pay for it!!”
Digiexplorer (not guru), Senior Lecturer in Digital Marketing @ Manchester Metropolitan University. Interested in digital literacy and digital culture in the third sector (especially faith). Author of ‘Raising Children in a Digital Age’, regularly checks hashtag #DigitalParenting.