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Sharenting: Sharing your child's life online

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Mother and daughter photographing funny faces

We all have that one friend on our Facebook feed.

The one whose posts and photos make you cringe as they over-share every aspect of their own and their children’s lives. 

For most of us, the occasional Facebook or Instagram update of our children is common place, and a good way to keep family and friends up-to-date with our little ones’ lives.

For many, according to research to come out of Murdoch University, the gratification of having friends, family and sometimes strangers comment on posts and photos about our own and our children’s lives can give us a confidence or self-esteem boost. 

And for others, sharing on social media is a lifeline, vital for human connection and social interaction. 

But how much is too much? And should we ever share our small children’s lives online?

Murdoch University social media researcher Doctor Catherine Archer recently conducted a large scale study in partnership with St John of God Health Care and Playgroup WA, into why an increased number of mothers are sharing photos, videos and information about their children on social media, also known as ‘sharenting’.

The study investigated what motivates mum bloggers and ordinary mothers to share their children’s stories and images, and what the related ethical concerns are.  

“The rise of mum bloggers has been a worldwide trend that has influenced ‘ordinary’ non-blogging mums to embrace technology and become avid users of social media, ‘sharenting’ images and information related to their offspring,” Dr Archer says.

The study, which involved focus groups and surveys with more than 400 Australian mothers found even though 74 per cent of women were concerned about privacy on social media, once they had their first child they used social media more than ever before, with more than 90 per cent favouring Facebook, followed closely by Instagram.

“It is the great privacy paradox,” Dr Archer says.

“People’s need to share can often over-ride their worry about privacy. But I would say if you are concerned about privacy it is best just not to share.”

Dr Archer says the main reasons the mothers in the study said they used social media were; communication, connection and reaching out; contact with the outside world; keeping up-to-date with family and friends; and because they didn’t want to miss out on social activities like playgroups, mother’s groups and other meet-up activities. 

“It is the great privacy paradox. People’s need to share can often over-ride their worry about privacy. But I would say if you are concerned about privacy it is best just not to share.”
Dr Catherine Archer

“The mothers said the downsides of using social media were that it could sometimes feel superficial and contribute to feelings of depression, some had privacy concerns and some were concerned about modelling behaviour to their small children,” she says.

 “Some mothers were so concerned about privacy that they never posted photos online while others didn’t have any privacy concerns.

“What we did find though is that there is a real lack of digital literacy, we heard one example where a woman was in hospital and posted a photo and tagged the hospital and was then surprised to see that their photo was on the hospital’s page for anyone to see,” she says. 

And it is the unlimited access of strangers, or even people on your “friend lists” that can pose a threat, experts warn.

Office of the eSafety Commissioner outreach program manager Kellie Britnell says limiting your audience was paramount when sharing content related to your children online.

“One only has to look at the uptake of social media and the ability to share photos easily and instantly to be able to make the generalisation that it is happening more than ever before,” she says. 

“Everyone wants to share images of their babies online and we would never advocate people not to share but you need to limit and know your audience.”

Part of the Office of the e-Safety Commissioner’s remit is to investigate prohibited online content, which gives them a unique insight into a disturbing practice where ordinary photos are harvested from personal social media accounts and then traded between people with an unhealthy interest in children, Ms Britnell says. 

“Privacy settings are absolutely vital and you can’t just set and forget, because with any social media platform privacy settings are always changing,” she says.

“You should also keep track of your friend lists and refine them regularly as you might have forgotten adding someone, or not be comfortable with some people on your lists having access to your content.”

And proud grandparents, aunties and uncles need to be aware, that posting photos of someone else’s children or babies is not only bad etiquette, but also in some cases unsafe.

“When it isn’t your child you do have an obligation to ask permission because you might be surprised that someone you are very close to, like your daughter or son or sister or brother, might have a very different position on what they will and won’t share online.”

“Our ability to share and publish to a wide audience is not going away and everyone is building up an etiquette in a space that we’ve never had to think about before,” she says.

For those that do want to share photos of their babies and children online, Kellie recommends; having the highest possible privacy settings on your account, using closed groups within platforms like Facebook or Instagram, or using WhatsApp, or similar messenging platforms or even email to share photos with a select audience. 

It was also important to be mindful of consent, according to Ms Britnell. 

Seeking consent of the parents of the baby or child whose photo you are posting, and eventually when they are old enough, consent from your child, is vital. 

“It’s hard when kids are very little, they can’t give you permission to share aspects of their lives online, but as soon as they can speak and understand, it is an ideal time to talk about notions of consent and ask them if you can take their photo and then if you can share it,” she says.

“It would be great if more people were more conscious of not making the decision to share their children’s lives, before their children can decide if they want that to happen.

“The thing to remember is once an image is online, you have no control over what happens to that image.

“So if you are prepared to post a child’s image you have to be prepared for potential negative behaviours associated with that photo.”

The Office of the e-Safety Commission has a lot of hints and tips to help you make informed decisions about sharing your children’s information online.

Here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Avoid sharing photos and videos that contain personal details, such as full names, personal contact information, or uniforms that identify location.
  • Avoid adding comments to photos that identify locations, e.g. street address, the name of the school your child is attending, or even identifying features in front of your home.
  • Only share with people who you really know and trust. Rather than posting to all of your friends on social media, be selective and use the privacy settings on your social media platform. Also, be aware that if one of your friends likes your picture, it may also become visible to their friends. If you’re not comfortable with this, you might reconsider how you share your child’s image.
  • Always check with other parents before posting and sharing images which include their children.
  • Be mindful of metadata—most digital photos contain information about the time, date and GPS coordinates of where the photo was taken. Some social media platforms automatically hide or remove this data, so do your homework and know how much info you’re sharing. 

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