Are Parents Guilty of Oversharing on Social Media?

By Tracey Dowdy

Do you ask your children’s permission before you post about them on social media?

Researchers at the University of Washington paired with researchers at the University of Michigan to study 249 parent-child pairings (children ages 10 to 17) across 40 states.

The purpose of the study was to examine what expectations both sides had about the rules families should follow when it came to technology.

Although there was plenty of common ground when it came to issues like texting and driving, there was a significant disconnect when the issue of social media arose. In fact, according to the study, three times more children than parents thought there should be rules about what parents shared on social media. Wait, what? You read that right. Kids had issues with what their parents were sharing.

Facebook hit the internet in 2004 and Instagram in 2010 and both drastically changed what we know about one another’s lives. It’s not uncommon for parents to curate social media pages for their children, almost from conception through birth and beyond. We post candid as well as artfully posed and edited photos alongside anecdotes on everything from potty training to track-meet victories. What used to be shared around the dinner table or posted on the fridge door is now out there for the whole world to see. But as our digital babies come of age, we’re starting to hear how our kids feel about the digital identity that we’ve carefully cultivated and created for them.

“As these children come of age, they’re going to be seeing the digital footprint left in their childhood’s wake. While most of them will be fine, some might take issue with it,” said Stacey Steinberg, a legal skills professor and associate director of the Center on Children and Families at the University of Florida Levin College of Law.

“I definitely know people who have parents who post things they wish weren’t out there. There was a girl in my eighth grade class whose mom opened a YouTube account for her in fourth grade to show off her singing. Finally, on one of the last months of middle school, a peer played the song in class and almost the entire class laughed hysterically over it.” – Isabella Aijo, 15, high school sophomore.

So does this mean we need to take down everything we’ve ever posted or go back through 12 years of Facebook posts? Yes and no. I know I have old photo albums on Facebook that I should edit or delete. Some of the things that seemed perfectly innocuous or needful at the time can be perceived as something very different by our kids.

And it’s more than just our photos. Sometimes we share less-than-perfect moments of our parenting to get advice. Having trouble potty training? Tantrums? Bedwetting? Getting your child to sleep through the night? How about talking to your kids about divorce, sex, bullying or drugs? Our circle of friends has moved from our neighbors to an online community and we often look to that community for support and advice. When we ask those questions, we’re asking as parents, not taking into consideration that we’re posting about another person without their consent.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Internet “kid shaming” trend that seemed to be in vogue a couple of years ago. No matter how well-intentioned those parents may have been, the subjects of those videos – their children – will eventually learn that their parents couldn’t be trusted not to share embarrassing material online.

As we continue to parent in a digital age, “we’re going to have to find ways to balance a parent’s right to share their story and a parent’s right to control the upbringing of their child with a child’s right to privacy,” says Steinberg. “Parents often intrude on a child’s digital identity, not because they are malicious but because they haven’t considered the potential reach and the longevity of the digital information that they’re sharing.”

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t capture those moments. I have hilarious pictures of my kids in the bathtub fully clothed, asleep in a laundry basket, writing on the kitchen wall with a Sharpie, and one particularly funny video of my oldest who “ran away” to the front porch, yelling for a taxi. We laugh over those pictures and videos often and so have the friends and family I’ve shared them with. My sister Tara’s posts about her toddler leave us in stitches on a regular basis and I look forward to finding out what she’ll get up to next.

Experts suggest that if you do need advice on parenting issues like potty training or picky-eaters, leave out the photos, tags and names so they’ll be less likely to come up in a search down the road. Show your children the same consideration you want from them. Do you want that video of you first thing in the morning, dressed in your mismatched PJ’s and cleaning up spilled Cheerios while you rant that “No-one around here helps me…just get your backpack…you’re going to miss the bus again!” all over Snapchat or made into a Vine? Probably not.

It’s not that we’re capturing those moments – it’s who we’re sharing them with. If your child is uncomfortable, take it down. Remember, everyone from their peers to their prospective employer will have access to that post. Model the responsible online behavior we we so often talk about and try to reinforce in our kids. The same rules should apply for us as parents. After all, these are the teachable moments we look for.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

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