A family's guide to social media — Part 1

It was just a video of her baby daughter babbling. It wasn’t particularly funny or unusual. Accordingly, Jennifer Frey didn’t hesitate to post it onto her YouTube channel. She’d posted similar videos of her young children before. She also frequently posted pictures of the children on other social media outlets and wrote about the trials and tribulations of motherhood on her blog.

She was in graduate school at the time, far from both her parents and in-laws, and her posts helped keep grandparents up to date on grandchildren they rarely saw.

This video, however, had a trajectory different than what Frey had expected. Friends and family members, charmed by the content, shared it with others. Those others shared it with even more people. And before Frey quite knew what was happening, more than 90,000 people had watched it. People from as far away as Russia and Kazakhstan were commenting, and the number of views continued to climb.

“It was a very intimate moment between the two of us, and suddenly I realized it wasn’t just friends and family sharing in that intimate moment; it was complete strangers,” said Frey, who now has five children and is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina.

“I kept thinking, ‘Who in Kazakhstan is watching my baby?’”

Oversharing

For Frey, the mysteriously viral video served as a wake-up call, forcing her to rethink what she shared about her children on social media.

“At that moment, I stopped putting videos of my children up on YouTube,” she said. “I didn’t want these private, intimate moments between me and my children broadcast to the whole world.”

That may be a wake-up call more parents need.

According to a study conducted last year by the University of Michigan, “sharenting” (parents’ online sharing of details about their children) is an ever-growing trend rife with potential problems.

The study found that two-thirds of all children in the United States have their pictures posted online. Furthermore, half of all mothers and one-third of all fathers reported using social media platforms to share intimate details about their children and their parenting struggles. Less than half those parents, however, took steps to conceal details about their children’s schedule and whereabouts. More than a quarter shared inappropriate photos.

By and large, the study found that most parents posted photos of a little one’s bath time or a child’s first piano concert for the same reasons Frey originally did: They wanted to give friends and family the chance to share in moments that distance would otherwise deny them. Three-quarters of respondents also said that sharing their struggles about parenting, from toilet-training toddlers to disciplining teenagers, made them feel less alone.

Those benefits of “sharenting,” however, might not outweigh its harms.

Exposed

The most obvious of those harms is safety.

“The more information other people have about your children, the easier it is for predators to use that information to endanger your child,” warned Dr. Joseph White, a child and family psychologist based in Austin, Texas, and a national catechetical consultant for Our Sunday Visitor. “That’s something the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has been very clear about: Giving strangers access to specific information about your children increases the potential danger to them.”

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Most parents would never intentionally reveal intimate details about their child’s life and schedule to strangers. But over time, enough Facebook posts about a child’s school plays, ballet recitals, siblings’ names, grandparents, and parents’ jobs, can give predators the details they need both to find children and win their trust.

Many parents’ failure to disable geotagging on their smartphones exacerbates the danger. Even parents who don’t “check-in” to locations on Facebook with their children often don’t realize that unless they disable the location settings on the cameras, their location is embedded into every photo they take.

Some social media sites eliminate the location tags on photos posted to their site, but not all do. Even then, a photo’s location tag can often be found with a little work, enabling predators to find home and school addresses, favorite parks and other regular hangouts.

“It’s an extreme problem and relatively rare,” says Dr. Greg Popcak, author of “Parenting with Grace” (OSV, $15.95) and director of the Pastoral Solutions Institute, which offers marriage and family counseling. “But it does and can happen.”

Embarrassed

Other potentially dangerous consequences of “over-sharenting” are less rare. Topping that list is sharenting’s potential to undermine a child’s dignity and right to privacy.

Posting old bathtime baby pictures of your 15-year-old might seem cute to you. But it probably won’t seem cute to your teenager when word gets around school that his naked baby pictures are on Facebook. And while it may make you feel better to talk about your fourth-grader’s struggles in school, it won’t necessarily make them feel better to know that Mom or Dad is talking about them on a social network that includes their teachers, friends’ parents and possibly even friends.

“We need to remember that the Catholic faith affirms that every person has dignity,” White said. “Along with that dignity goes a right to some measure of privacy. At some level, a parent’s job is to protect their kids and guard their dignity. Posting about punishments, misbehavior and embarrassing photos, even of very young children, can violate that right.”

While some parents may think there’s no harm in sharing a few complaints about their young child’s behavior, Popcak disagrees, noting that the child won’t stay young forever, and what’s posted online doesn’t disappear. In fact, thanks to Facebook’s new “memories” feature, newsfeeds regularly recycle status updates originally posted years earlier.

“If a child sees a status mocking them or complaining about them, even years after it was written, they can feel like their parent has been telling stories about them and talking behind their back,” Popcak said.

Parents offer advice on 'Sharenting'
For all the problems inherent with “sharenting,” it’s not all bad. Various social media platforms, from Facebook to Instagram, offer far-flung friends and family a way to stay involved in each other’s lives on a daily basis. Those platforms can help people feel less lonely and also can be tools for encouraging and supporting parents in the difficult work of raising children.

Defined

Beyond the breakdown in trust that can occur from those types of discoveries, sharing your child’s struggles and weaknesses — even if you’re primarily talking about how they affect you or asking for advice in addressing them — can negatively impact how others see your child and deprive them of their right to shape their own identity.

“We’re adults,” Frey said. “If we want to tell the whole world everything about ourselves, that’s our choice. But to make that choice for our children is taking something away from them: control over their identity.

“Philosophers and psychologists recognize that having some basic control over how you construct your identity to other people is foundational,” Frey said. “That was something we all had growing up. If our parents talked about our struggles, it was with a few close friends or relatives. When we share that information on Facebook, however, with 700 people, half of whom we’ve never even met, we’re taking that control to define themselves away from our kids.”

“A real danger here is that kids won’t feel safe to be themselves,” Popcak said. “They’ll feel like they always need to be on display. Kids deserve to just be themselves, though. They have a right to be kids — to make mistakes and do well on their own, without having a spotlight continually on them.”

Exploited

That spotlight poses yet another danger: Kids and teens might decide that they like the attention a little too much.

Although Frey has significantly scaled back how much she posts about her children online, she still shares the occasional picture. Recently, one of the pictures she shared was of her daughter’s first holy Communion.

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“She asked me how many ‘likes’ she got,” Frey said. “And she was very pleased to learn that she had 80. She already has this sense that it matters, that it’s good if you have more likes and bad if you have less.”

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with an 8-year-old being happy that people like her picture, too much emphasis on social media popularity can be a recipe for anxiety, depression and narcissism.

“Oversharing leads to negative feedback, and negative feedback leads to depression,” Popcak said. “It shouldn’t bother us when perfect strangers say negative things about us, but it does. It shouldn’t bother us if perfect strangers don’t like our pictures, but it does. Studies back up the notion that Facebook depression is a real thing, and when we share private details about our family life, we’re opening ourselves and our kids up to that.”

Moreover, White said, “Putting online everything that our kids do and say can give children the impression that everybody cares about everything they do and say. Most people don’t care that Piper is at dance class, but the continual posting of daily activities can feed the illusion in children that people do care. And that can feed narcissism.”

The threat of narcissism doesn’t only apply to children, though. It also applies to parents, whose charming anecdotes about their children’s exploits, videos of their babies’ falls and photos of creative punishment techniques can earn them worldwide attention … for at least a day.

“In a culture of celebrity, where we want to be known for the number of friends, likes and followers we collect, it’s easy to use kids to do that,” Popcak said. “But that is exploitative and can be damaging and dangerous for parents and kids.”

Chastened

So, what’s the best way for parents to avoid the dangers, to their children and themselves, of “over-sharenting”?

“Limit who you share things with, respect your children’s privacy and when in doubt, ask,” White said. “Ultimately, though, you are the guardian of your children, and even if they want you to post something, you have to use your discretion.”

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Added Popcak, “It’s a good idea to ask yourself, ‘How would my kids feel if I were telling this story about them when they were in the room? Would they feel like I was making fun of them? Would they feel ashamed or embarrassed?’ If they would, it’s better to not share it online.”

As both a mother and philosopher, Frey ultimately urges caution and prudence.

“We’re all so busy, and we’re disconnected in a profound way,” she said. “Being online is a way of fulfilling the human need to be connected to other human beings. That’s good and important. I don’t want to be too harsh on parents who share more than I do. But we often forget the scope of that virtual connectedness. It’s global.

“We really have no idea how sharing our children’s lives with the world is going to affect them, both in the short term and the long term,” she said. “But we’re doing it anyway. Right now, this is all one big experiment. Technology is outstripping our ability to think practically about it.”

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.

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