Words: Emma Howarth
Parents have been embarrassing their children with baby photos, back-to-school shots and snaps of bad haircuts since the dawn of the compact camera, but only now is a generation whose every move has been documented, not just in dusty family albums but all over the internet, beginning to come of age.
Children born in 2007 – the year Facebook hit the mainstream in the UK – turned 10 this year, an occasion most likely documented for friends, family and followers on a feed filled with memories of gap-toothed grins, first steps and videos of that time they threw a strop in Tesco. And that’s just one platform. Add on uploads to Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube and the ever-growing slew of tell-all parenting blogs, and the fact that the average parent (according to a 2016 Parent Zone study) posts 1,500 pictures of their child online before their fifth birthday seems like it might even be an understatement.
There’s no doubt about it, we live in an online world and sharing has become part of the status quo. But what does this mean for the children whose lives we are documenting? Are we putting them in danger? Can ‘like-hungry’ parents really be trusted as the gatekeepers of their children’s digital footprints? Should we be more respectful of our children’s right to privacy? And, erm, isn’t this all sounding a bit paranoid?
Stella McCartney made her feelings on child privacy very clear in July this year, when she was reported to be furious that David Beckham shared a photo on Instagram of Harper’s Buckingham Palace birthday celebrations that included her daughter, Reiley. McCartney prefers to keep her children out of the limelight and off social media. And she’s not alone. Fearne Cotton never reveals her children’s faces to her 1.9 million Instagram followers, Cheryl and Liam are all about baby Bear’s privacy, and you won’t catch the Clooney twins on Snapchat anytime soon.
So far, so Celeb Land, but we all know you don’t have to be an A-lister to build a large social media following these days. There are ordinary families sharing snippets of their children’s lives to audiences of thousands on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and other platforms. Some are even making a living out of it. When a Mumsnet thread about annoying ‘Instamums’ exploded on the forum in September, there were as many users up in arms about child privacy and exploitation as there were rants about Insta-family product placements and shady sponsorship deals.
This might be the moral dilemma of the moment for the influencer crowd, but what if your social media head count amounts to little more than a few friends from school and your mum? Do the rest of us really need to worry about what we’re sharing about our families online?
Helen Ryan, head of law at Winchester University, has given the subject more thought than most as a contributor to the university’s recent Generation Tagged report on child internet privacy: “The issue of children and social media is a tricky one, but it is important to remember that young children have a right to privacy independent of their parents,” she says.“It may seem cute to adults to see and hear children doing or saying funny things or behaving precociously, but in the long term it can be embarrassing for the child, damage family relationships or have an effect on a child’s mental health or self-esteem.
“This can occur even where privacy settings are tight and accessible only by close friends and family. There is little to stop someone who has access to a post copying it and sharing it with others, and it’s not impossible for material to be recontextualised for unsavoury purposes – these things have far more reach than most of us realise.”
Pretty heavy when all you wanted to do was stick a picture of junior in his new school uniform on Facebook for your grandma to see, right? So should we be rushing to delete our accounts and keeping our progeny under lock and key until they turn 18?
“Not at all and that is not what the report suggests,” says Ryan. “Clearly children are a part of our society and as such it is right that they have a place in the lives their families show on social media. It would be wrong to ban them from being shown in this way completely, but it’s important that we do all we can to minimise the risk of harm.”
For Ryan and the rest of the team at Winchester, that mostly means checking your privacy settings, being careful about revealing personal information or locations and thinking before sharing that naked-in-the-bath shot however cute it is. “If there’s any sense of unease or something that a parent would not wish to be shared were they to stand in the child’s shoes, then perhaps that should ring a warning bell,” she says. “And if the child is capable of consenting in any way and they object, that material should not be used.”
Of course, anyone who’s tried to engage a two-year-old in serious conversation knows that’s a non-starter, but talking to slightly older children about social media and what you’re sharing is a good place to start if you’re concerned about their feelings on privacy. You don’t have to wait until they’re old enough for the school debating team, either.
Anna Whitehouse, founder of Mother Pukka and sharer of many a cute kid video, is already taking steps in a new direction after her eldest daughter, Mae, told her she no longer wanted to be in her videos when she starts school.
“I’ve shown Mae everything we’ve done with Mother Pukka from when she was little, so she’s aware of what it is,” says Whitehouse. “And when I asked her if she’d be happy with us carrying on when she’s at school, she said: ‘A little bit but not if my friends can see it.’ So that’s that. She’s happy to still be on our daily stories, but she won’t be doing any of the more polished vlogs any more. It’ll be the same for our younger daughter, Eve, when she is older.”
It’s not just Insta-famous parents that face these sorts of decisions and issues though. One parent we spoke to for this feature was devastated to find her daughter crying one evening because her friends at school were laughing at a photo her father had shared on Instagram. Another was surprised to see a family snap she’d shared online being used as an advert for a local business, and one mother deleted Instagram and culled her Facebook friends after an old boyfriend started making threatening comments online. And let’s not forget the Austrian teenager who decided to sue her parents in 2016 for violating her privacy with online pictures throughout her childhood.
Some parents simply take the stance that no amount of sharing is worth it. “I’m not really into social media myself and I want to set a good example to my nearly teenage daughter,” says Nicole Deniz, a mother of two from Kent. “I care about my children’s privacy and I don’t feel the need to create a digital record of their lives. Plus, if I’d plastered their faces all over Instagram I would have no room to talk when I tell my daughter I don’t want her to have her own account yet.”
These decisions are very personal but isn’t there joy to be had in sharing everyday moments with family and friends? For many parents, sharing online is a very positive experience. “I’m proud of my children, careful about who I let ‘friend’ me on Facebook and I don’t think being overly paranoid about these things is practical in the modern world,” says Sarah Jones, who happily shares pictures of her three children online. “I like sharing pictures of my kids, I like following parents who share pictures of their kids and I’m not planning to stop any of that anytime soon.”
Journalist and Mad Girl author Bryony Gordon has 27k Instagram followers and wholeheartedly agrees: “Look, this is how we live now,” she says. “Have boundaries, be careful, don’t share photos of them naked or anything that might embarrass them. And definitely don’t think you’re above everyone else because you don’t share pictures of your kid on the internet. It’s life. It’s joyful. I’d rather see pictures of children on my social media feed than pictures of puppies and Jihadi videos.”
Another Instagrammer who’s confident about her choice to share pictures of her children with 50k followers is Mother of all Lists blogger Clemmie Telford: “I have made certain decisions about what I will and won’t share online that I am comfortable with. No school uniform logos, nothing that would embarrass them later, nothing derogatory and no nakedness.
“Sharing moments on Instagram has enabled me to document and preserve lots of tiny moments that I would otherwise have forgotten and that is a positive thing.”
Wherever you stand on this debate, we can probably all benefit from a think-before-you-share approach to the online world. “At the heart of every decision we take to show pictures or video footage of our children, there should be thought given to the welfare interests of the individual child,” says Ryan. So ditch the school logos, clean up those privacy settings and imagine the look of disgust on your child’s teenage face when you try to justify the snap you shared of them on the potty in 2011. In fact, maybe just delete it.
THINGS TO THINK ABOUT BEFORE YOU POST
Check your privacy settings. Are they tight enough?
Is your child capable of consenting in any way? If so, ask them if it’s ok to share.
Are there any signs (non-verbal or verbal) that your child is unhappy with you sharenting?
Is there anything visible in the image that could enable your child to be physically located (school logos, house/road number, car registration)?
Is there anything about any images used that is age inappropriate?
Is there anything that can be easily recontextualised for unsavoury/unlawful purposes?Is there anyone else depicted who hasn’t given permission, such as friends of the child?