According to this Guardian article, parents are sharing more and more content about their children online, often in minute and even sickening detail. Whether ill, tantrumming, asleep or newly born, the younglings can’t escape being documented. And to clarify that this phenomenon is indeed A Thing, it’s been blessed with its own portmanteau term: ‘sharenting’.
I’m not a sharent. Straight after I finished reading the Guardian article, I Googled my daughter’s name, saw zero relevant results and let out a sigh of relief. The only things I’ve uploaded are the odd indirectly referenced blog or tweet, and my partner is resolutely unsocial – digitally speaking, I mean. (As an adoption professional, she also knows the intractable issues that arise when some children’s past family lives are documented online.)
Sharenting is about parents, not children
Most people stick the odd photo on Facebook, and while I despise the site myself, I can see why people like it for watching their friends’ or family’s kids grow up. But others go much further, and the results can be profoundly uncomfortable. For examples, check out Dooce, with its almost daily record of blogger Heather Armstrong’s children’s lives, or the Tumblr Reasons My Son Is Crying, which is basically an almanac of childhood distress curated for adult amusement.
One justification is ‘keeping a record’, but this is disingenuous; records don’t need to be public. I’ve made loads of digital movies to record my daughter’s life, which we view privately with family and close friends. For me, there’s a clear difference between a diary and an advertisement.
The real reason for sharenting is narcissism. It’s not a record of the child’s life, but the parent’s, channelled vicariously through the proxy of the child. And its primary motivation isn’t love for the child – despite the many gushing protestations – but the parent’s love for themselves. All those Facebook Likes are burnishing the sharent’s parenting credentials as much as reflecting the lovability of their kids.
Sharenting does more harm than good
I don’t think anyone can really claim that sharenting helps children. It’s harmless at the very best, and carries the risk of being intrusive and destructive at worst.
The kids either know nothing about it or, I would argue, can’t give informed consent, at least not until eight or nine at the absolute youngest. So let’s get real: we’re talking about parents sharing whatever the hell they want while minimising, downplaying or just ignoring the negative effects on their kids.
So how do sharents respond to the charge that their kids might not want all this stuff online? Emma Beddington of belgianwaffling.com (quoted in the Guardian article) says, ‘I don’t use my kids’ real names on my blog and I try to avoid writing anything that would have mortified me growing up.’
There are two big points there that I take issue with. First, though, let me clear that I’m not singling Emma out for personal criticism – she’s only articulating the rationale of every sharent.
If you post it, people will see it
First, let’s talk about ‘real names’. Imagine if, 20 years ago, someone had told you that you could type someone’s name into a computer and find out about their work, friends, family, preferences and thoughts. Moonshine, you’d have said – but it’s reality.
Now fast-forward another 20 years from today, and imagine what some devilish hybrid of semantic search, facial recognition and data mining will come up with. As I speculated in this post, we’ll probably be reviewing every detail of people’s lives the second we meet them. Our blind faith in technology, plus the advertising dollar, make it inevitable.
The naïveté of ‘no real names’ would be touching if it weren’t so scary. If it’s freely shared today, you can bet it will be aggregated, analysed and repackaged tomorrow. What is posted about people’s lives will be findable.
What’s OK today might not be in future
Which brings me to the ‘no embarrassing content’ defence. The point is: who decides?
I’m not sure ‘anything that would have mortified me growing up’ really cuts it. To reason that way is to impose your own values on your child. Of course, parents inevitably do that every day. But we ideally do it to help the child develop, not to justify something we just feel like doing. Children are autonomous individuals, not extensions of ourselves.
Bear in mind that this stuff will be online forever, so it’s not ‘growing up’ but the whole of childhood and adulthood, until death and beyond. It will form a part of the future adult’s digital footprint, irrevocably bonded to their online self-image along with whatever they choose to post about themselves.
We think of a photo or blog about our children as fleeting and ephemeral, but that’s because it doesn’t contain anything that might come back to haunt us. If it were a friend posting an image of our drunken vomit that they’d had to clean up, we might think differently.
For some teenagers, just being out in public an is excruciating ordeal of self-consciousness. Who are we to decide, before the fact, which parts of their younger lives are OK to share? What seems trivial at age six could be the final straw at 16.
However, it could be even worse when they reach adulthood. Picture a young couple on their first date. ‘I’m not surprised you had the steak,’ she says. ‘You loved “beefy bits” when you were little didn’t you?’ Of course, we could always decide not to look people up. But how likely is that, given the current trajectory of the way we use digital media?
Children have the right to privacy
Pro-social evangelists blithely tell us that ‘sharing is good’, but it’s not that simple. As technology develops, privacy may become one of the most precious and besieged rights we have. We should all be able to decide for ourselves what’s public, what’s private and what’s embarrassing. By unilaterally making the decision to share, sharents are violating their children’s future privacy.
Our childhood memories are intimate parts of ourselves. We should be free to reveal them to others when and how we want – or never, if we so choose. By oversharing online, we risk robbing our kids of that freedom before they even know they had it.