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Social media and a child's right to privacy

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Father and daughter taking selfies


If there was ever a topic to divide parents, it would be the question of whether it’s okay to use your children as social media talent. 

So many of us are sharing various aspects of our lives on social media – some will share privately with friends and family. Other parents prefer to share their children with the world on a public social media account and that’s where the waters can get a little muddy.

Whether you’re sharing video clips of your child saying silly things, dancing energetically or just being cute, there can be consequences.

Dr Joanne Faulkner is a senior lecturer in the Department of Media, Communications, Creative Arts, Literature, and Language, Macquarie University.

Dr Faulkner says the underlying question of parents oversharing their children on social media revolves around the concept of privacy and how that relates to childhood.

What are the cultural reasons for qualms about ’sharenting’?

“The modern conception of childhood evolved alongside the development of the idea of 'home' as a private sphere, understood as a non-economic and apolitical realm – i.e. as set apart from work and from the public sphere,” Dr Faulkner says.

Childhood is associated with this idea of home, and so with privacy. If it feels gauche to see others putting images and stories about their children on blogs or social media, it's because of this association with privacy, and with the idea that we need to keep something back from publicity.
Dr Joanne Faulkner, senior lecturer in the Department of Media, Communications, Creative Arts, Literature, and Language, Macquarie University

“It's felt as a matter of decorum, and oversharing is seen as indecorous. Insofar as this sharing also leads to financial gain, it can be seen to sully the innocence of childhood – to instrumentalise (children's) lives that are supposed to remain open-ended, but also because children are supposed to be kept separate from adult concerns such as money and work.”


Sharing the joys of motherhood (online)

Dr Faulkner says it's important to look at why parents (particularly mothers) feel driven to share their children’s images and life stories to the internet.

She believes women's value remains so culturally tied to motherhood that sharing images and stories about their children feels like it's about them rather than the child.

“Two recent publications by ‘mommy bloggers’ can help us think through this. In 2018, Darlena Cunha wrote in the Washington Post of her decision to stop blogging about her children, but without reference particularly to their agency or capacity for consent. She noted that most ‘mommy bloggers’ get to a stage where they decide, as their children grow, that they need privacy. She framed this in interesting terms: as children grow, parents’ sense of ownership of them lessens,” Dr Faulkner says.

Darlena Cunha writes: “At first, they seem like simple extensions of ourselves, so that writing about them is like writing about us… We feel like we have a right to them, like our consent is their consent.”

Dr Faulkner notes that when Cunha comes to articulate her reason for giving up blogging about her children, it is because of how it will affect them as adults.

“She is protecting their adult selves from their childhood selves, who have no sense of privacy and even want to be exhibited. She seeks ‘to salvage a desire for privacy so that as they become adults there is something there to preserve at all’,” Dr Faulkner says.


Influencers and online backlash

Blogger Christie Tate was widely criticised after she published an opinion piece in the Washington Post (January 2019), about why she refused to stop writing about her daughter, even after her daughter had asked her to stop.

Tate described how her daughter discovered she was the subject of her mother’s blogs, when she googled her, only to find images of, and stories about, herself.

She was furious and asked her mother to remove all content about her.

According to Dr Faulkner, Tate’s daughter was clearly able to articulate a notion of privacy and her capacity to consent (or not) to an invasion of privacy.

“But Tate refused to take down material, or to stop writing about her. Why? Because, she says, her form of creative expression is to write about her experiences as a mother, and these are inextricable from her daughter. If she were to stop writing about her it would do a violence to herself — she even characterises it as a form of amputation of parts of her experience that she must prioritise over considerations of her daughter’s privacy,” Dr Faulkner says.

Dr Faulkner claims the issue this scenario opens, for her, regards what "oversharing" means for the possibility of mutual respect and trust between children and their parents.

Parents sharing photos or stories about their children to social media often get caught up in the moment. Like Tate, they don’t differentiate posting about their child from posting about themselves, and how their child might feel about the share in the future is far from consciousness,” Dr Faulkner says.

“I don't think it helps to come down on those parents or ‘shame job’ them. But you'd like to think that parents would have a conversation about what they want to post about as soon as a rudimentary conversation is possible – and that they'd refrain from posting if ever that child ever communicates a sense of uncertainty, ambivalence, or opposition to it.”

“I think there's no question that an explicit request to remove material ought to be honoured, for the sake of preserving a relationship of trust and respect between parent and child. But, what might each of these stories teach us about the meaning of childhood in our culture, and especially with regard the value we give to privacy?”

According to Dr Faulkner, despite the fact the two bloggers made the opposite decision to one another, they both deny that their child’s privacy is a concern.

“For Tate, her child’s privacy is secondary to her own desire to express herself through her child. Her daughter is an extension of herself. You might say she has ‘boundary issues’, but it goes beyond this. She asserts that to stop publicising her daughter’s life would constitute a betrayal of her own self,” Dr Faulkner says.

“For Cunha, her children have no regard for privacy:  she asserts, they want to be written about. She decides, however, that she must ‘salvage a desire for privacy’ for their future adult selves. So you get the sense here that the childhood self is seen as a resource, which may either be exploited by the parent for her own self-expression, or which the parent may ‘salvage‘ for their own use later, when they are adults.”

Dr Faulkner believes it’s crucial to ask, “What if we were to value children’s privacy not for what it might mean to an adult, but rather as something that belongs to them as children?”

“This would mean regarding children from their earliest infancy as having interests of their own, which potentially might be in conflict with my interests as a parent. It might engender a way of interacting with one’s children that takes for granted that they have a right of consent; and this mode of interaction, in turn, would support children to develop the capacity to deliberate about their own interests and desires,” Dr Faulkner says.

“Children do not acquire reason and the ability to give consent once they reach a particular age. Children’s capacities and resources are nourished by their relationships of trust and openness with those in their sphere. Children whose adults respect their privacy and subjectivity from the start are likely to attain competency to make decisions and consent far earlier than they would, had their adults not engaged with them respectfully.”