Sunday 27 May 2018

The 'sharent' trap – should ​you ever put your ​children on social media?

It’s more and more usual for people to share pictures of their children online – and some have even turned it into a lucrative business. Is it always wrong to mix kids and social media?

Follow some bloggers or Instagram stars and you will know more about their children than you do about the children of your closest friends and relatives. You will see them sleeping or having tantrums; in their swimsuits in paddling pools or having their nappies changed. You will see their mealtimes, their holidays and what they looked like on Christmas morning. You may have seen them in the minutes after they were born, umbilical cord still attached, and perhaps even before they embarked on this childhood of unwitting digital documentation, in a fuzzy black-and-white ultrasound picture. The ethics of this – publishing photographs of one’s children to build a social media following, and then monetising it – have always been shady, but the issue has been amplified this week.

On Mumsnet over the past few months, there have been active threads criticising parenting bloggers or “influencers” – that euphemism for advertisers – mainly about the transparency of sponsored posts and advertising content, but also about the perceived exploitation of their children. The account of one Instagram-user, Clemmie Hooper, was taken down this week and though it is unclear who took it down and why – there were allegations of abusive comments under a post – she has in the past attracted criticism for the use of her children. Hooper’s account, Mother of Daughters, had nearly 470,000 followers and documented life with her four girls. The account of her husband, Simon Hooper, who runs Father of Daughters for his 845,000 followers, is still running – and his posts almost always feature one or more of his daughters. The couple have been singled out this week – neither would comment for this piece – but they are far from the only ones.

An extreme few have, either by accident or design, managed to turn themselves and their families into brands, but posting pictures of children online is something many parents do, and it all has ramifications. In a recent report for the London School of Economics (LSE) project Preparing for a Digital Future, three-quarters of parents who use the internet at least monthly share photographs or videos of their children online. Parents are more likely to do this with younger children. A little more than half only share pictures with close family and friends, and most don’t share pictures with “a wide audience” (defined by the researchers as more than 200 contacts). Just one in 10 do this, and only 3% of parents share pictures on a public website such as a blog or open Instagram account.

So is sharing pictures online of our children something we should be worrying about? “In an age of visibility, it is important that parents discuss the pros and cons of sharing with their children, even when quite young,” says Sonia Livingstone, professor of social psychology in the department of media and communications at the LSE, and one of the project’s researchers. “We interviewed several families where even small children wished their parents would share fewer photos, and consult them more. We observed in a few families that children are even learning to tell their parents to stop. But insofar as this sharing is to bring families together, even when geographically dispersed, there are also advantages, and children appreciate those, too. It’s a matter of respect and consent, and protecting that is important, more than the actual fact of sharing itself.”

 ‘Parents are questioning the wisdom of posting so much about their kids online,’ says one clinical psychologist. Photograph: Getty Images/Guardian Design Team
Are generations of children now growing up without privacy? “I don’t think so,” she says. “The conditions of their privacy are changing, partly because of their own actions, partly others’. What will matter to children is to feel they have agency, respect and dignity – that’s at the heart of privacy. So anyone sharing or using their images should prioritise this.”

Genevieve von Lob, clinical psychologist and author of Five Deep Breaths: The Power of Mindful Parenting, says: “More and more parents are questioning the wisdom of posting so much about their kids online. The pictures that are uploaded can form a permanent digital tattoo. Because it’s all so new for parents, we need to start thinking about asking children’s permission to post online.”

Children will learn their own online behaviours from their parents, she adds. “Are you leading with a positive, respectful, appropriate example? Are you modelling that you think before you share online? If parents are posting things online to get likes, it’s about getting that validation from others. It’s important kids aren’t learning that posting [photographs] is a way of being validated.”

It’s probably unreasonable to expect parents to stop altogether – social media is a fact of life now and there are benefits, Von Lob points out. “For parents, it can be a lifeline – you feel supported, [get] practical advice, reassurance. It can be very lonely if you’ve been with the kids all day, and putting pictures online is a way of connecting with other adults, but I do think parents need to keep in mind how those children will feel in the future. Will they feel ashamed, embarrassed, anxious, annoyed? Will your kids feel empowered enough to say: ‘I don’t feel happy about you putting this online’? You could affect your future relationship with your children if you haven’t asked their permission.”

Will we ever get to the point where children are routinely suing their parents for exposing their childhoods online? It’s not impossible, says Claire Bessant, associate professor of law at Northumbria University, who is leading a project on “sharenting”. “Technically, there are remedies they could use. They could use the Data Protection Act or the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that comes into force tomorrow, because if parents are putting photos up without consent, [the child] could argue they have the right to take those down. They might consider they have a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to some of the information parents are putting out there.” This could be applied to medical information, or pictures taken in the home.

If you think about how children are being profiled on the basis of social media images, there is a real risk

Most children won’t have the finances to bring a court case, “and a child is normally not considered to have the capacity to bring legal proceedings themselves”. And the implications of such a case on family relationships could be disastrous. Bessant prefers the idea of educating parents and children “so there can be a dialogue at an earlier age. I’ve done research talking to parents about how they share information and what they think privacy is and there are a number of parents who said that once their children start to say, ‘I don’t want those photographs out there’, they would be quite willing to either not post at all, or only post once they have spoken to their kids.”

Veronica Barassi, a media and communications lecturer at Goldsmith’s, University of London who is leading the Child Data Citizen research project, says “there is a moral panic” about sharing pictures online. However, she admits there are dangers. “If you think about big data and how children are being profiled on the basis of social media images, there is a real risk. I’m particularly interested in things like facial recognition: the way in which that data is sold, and the lack of transparency, is the most worrying aspect of so-called sharenting.”

This can have unforeseen implications. One example she gives is parents posting pictures of their children at political demonstrations, and I think back to a picture I posted on my (private) Instagram account of my child at an anti-Trump rally in London. “They give the child a political agency in some way. But [parents] tend not to think about the fact that that’s creating a political trace that can be tracked in the future. It’s important that we start thinking about the way in which data is bought and used without us knowing.” Along with educational and medical information, “social media is one tiny dimension of the data traces that are produced about children today.”

 ‘Father of Daughters’ blogger Simon Hooper with his four children.
Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian
It’s important that parents consider the long-term implications for their child of having a highly visible digital footprint

What, then, should parents do? Those setting out with the intention of making themselves and their children famous are one thing. “It’s important that parents consider carefully the long-term implications for their child of having a highly visible and widely shared digital footprint,” says Livingstone. “In our interviews with parent bloggers, we found they were becoming more conscious of this, and often taking care only to present their child in a positive light. Of course, it’s possible that this too could be problematic, creating an ideal self that the child must live up to.”

As for the rest of us, who have no intention of using photographs of our toddlers to advertise a nappy brand but are still exposing them online, consent is key and “can begin very early,” she says. “Perhaps sharing should be kept to a minimum early on. Sharing photos with a handful of friends and family is one thing. Sharing on public sites is quite another, and I’m not sure parents should do that at all.”

Much of it is common sense, says Bex Lewis, senior lecturer in digital marketing at Manchester Metropolitan University and author of Raising Children in a Digital Age. “Try not to put their school uniform in, try not to show that you have a regular pattern every day.” Most parents, you would hope, wouldn’t post pictures of their children naked but there are other things parents should perhaps think twice about. It is probably not fair, she says, to show pictures of a child having a meltdown, “although those are quite funny to watch”. Turn off geotagging, which tells internet users where you are, and lock down your privacy settings. Even then, “there is always a chance someone could screenshot the pictures, but someone could take a picture of your child in the park, and if you thought like that you’d never go anywhere. Keep the child involved in the conversation from an early age. The digital world is an everyday part of our lives now. It’s still evolving, so I’m not sure there are any fixed rules, but having a bit of thought about what you are posting and where you’re posting it is the critical thing.”

(Source: The Guardian)

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