Sharenting: why is it acceptable?

Sarah Hamilton examines the epidemic of parents oversharing online.

If a baby takes their first steps in a quiet family room and nobody Tweets about it, did it happen? Technology has infiltrated nearly every aspect of our lives, leaving our children little chance of sliding under the digital radar. With so many vehicles to choose from it’s hard to resist; will it be a witty Tweet, a funny Facebook post or a Pinterestingly filtered photo of your #instababy? Whatever the situation, there’s an app for that.

‘Sharents’ are parents who share information about their kids online. This might involve recording milestones and achievements, happy snaps and candid-camera moments, meltdowns, embarrassingly personal glimpses and the purely celebratory, all as a kind of virtual diary. It brings with it the comfort and reassurance of shared experiences, validation of ideas and values, expressions of pride and social feedback.

According to blogger Catherine Rodie Blagg, sharenting can also be a welcome escape for many who find parenting a daunting and lonely experience. She writes that social media gave her an “escape from the monotony of sleepless nights and dirty nappies” and a way for her to exchange jokes, advice and support with other mothers. Learning about real parents’ experiences, she says, can be a breath of fresh air compared with the images of perfect parents portrayed in TV commercials.

But the need to document lives online can come at a price. Online journal The Huffington Post reported the story of American mother Meredith, who jokingly dressed her two children as Jesse and Walt from the TV show Breaking Bad (about illegal drug making) and shared an image of them on her Facebook page. Unaware it would be shared beyond her personal network, she had changed her privacy settings to ‘friends of friends’. Within days it had been posted on Breaking Bad actor Aaron Paul’s Twitter feed and seen by his thousands of followers. With this new-found fame came an onslaught of critical comments accusing Meredith of being an irresponsible mother. One blogger wrote, “Come on, what’s the kid telling his friends? I’m a meth dealer for Halloween! Not cool, parents.”

Arguably not so ‘cool’, too, is a relatively recent trend of parents using social media as a vehicle for venting against other parents, other parents’ children, schools, teachers, children’s services, entertainment providers, food, clothing and toy makers, you name it. Depending on the parent’s level of comfort with confrontation and/or technological awareness, the venting can be conducted as open warfare or under a veil of secrecy. Privy to someone’s toddler tantrum? Witness someone else’s ‘poor’ parenting? Loathe the preschool’s policies and its staff? Tweet it, post it, cybershame it.

The internet gives parents an (often false) sense of anonymity and soap-box authority which can lead to trolling, cyber-bullying and even personal endangerment and criminal behaviour. Social media provides a forum where grievances that have met a dead end in the real world can be pursued; complaints and slights can be bolstered and inflamed by consensus; and ‘grenades’ can be cooked and hurled from a safe distance.

For a parenting culture that is increasingly concerned about bullying, these behaviours have a trickle-down effect on children’s understanding of, and response to, conflict resolution and problem-solving. Susan McLean is a former member of the Victorian Police Force specialising in online crime, and now works as a cyber-safety advisor. Susan regularly receives reports from schools about parents behaving badly online. “There’s a misconception across the community that it’s acceptable to behave like this online, that you can do what you like,” she says. “But as this continues, we are going to see parents charged for their behaviour online, like any other members of the community who misuse technology. It’s a disrespectful way to behave…and it sends a strong message to children that bullying is OK.”

Susan says regardless of security settings, the internet is a public place. “Anyone can get a hold of what is written, copy it and post it somewhere else.” Without context, subtle tones and emotions can be distorted and misread since the digital medium doesn’t lend itself to nuance or irony. Yet social media is not solely to blame. There have long been parents who pass snap judgements on others – the internet simply makes it more convenient and sometimes more permanent.

Sharenting can have other repercussions for children beyond poor role modelling. The sharing of information often means forgoing children’s consent and posting on their behalf. This generation of children will inherit an online identity created by their parents, sometimes from as early as their first sonogram. It will be difficult to explain to teenagers what is and isn’t appropriate to post when their lives have already been broadcast online.

Beyond the embarrassment a child might feel after their friends find that old toilet-training post, the online distribution of information could leave a more damaging legacy, according to Tony Anscombe from online-security firm AVG. He told the The Guardian newspaper website there was likely to be an increase in identity theft as sharenting continued. In the US, there have already been cases of teenagers applying for a driver’s licences only to find their identity has been stolen. Providing an ineradicable footprint of your child online presents potential threats to their privacy and personal security and the misuse and misrepresentation of personally identifiable data for the rest of their lives.

Ultimately, knowing the internet is a volatile place where content is frequently used and abused, why would you want to make something as personal and as private as your family public? When it comes to sharing information online, it seems the 15th-Century adage still holds true – you will never regret having spoken too little, but will often regret having said too much.

Illustration: Cherie Hughes