Updated: May 17, 2020
The children in our lives ("digital natives") have a much different relationship dynamic with tech as do we adults ("digital immigrants"). For one thing, most of the technology that permeates every aspect of our society has been in existence longer than most of our kids. Therefore, the great digital divide is their norm. While many of us adults are adept at using modern tech devices, we fail in comparison to kids' proficiency when it comes to all things tech. Just ask any of my faculty members. When they can't get the overhead projector to connect to the internet or their smart board is acting up, they will ask a student to fix it before they call the tech department. More times than not, the child can fix it.
While we often seem concerned that the kids in our lives spend too much time on their devices or on social media, we should admit that we have conditioned them to be this way to a certain extent. As we all know, kids model the behavior of the adults in their lives. If they see us constantly looking at our tech devices, they will do the same.
I must admit, I enjoy various forms of social media. I have personal accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. When I am not careful, I spend way too much time on these accounts. In addition, my Facebook page for Slow Your Roll-Mindfulness for Fast Times, has about 16,000 followers. I have a good time interacting with followers on this page and posting mindfulness memes and article links. A conscious effort on my part is required for me to try and maintain a mindful approach to my consumption of social media. While I post daily in most of these mediums, I try to avoid confrontation. I have come to the conclusion that I am better off posting what I am passionate about and enjoying friends' posts about their kids and pets.
As an educator, one of my favorite days of the year on Facebook is always the first day of the school year when friends post cute pictures of their kids all dressed up, ready to take on another school year. I also enjoy it when they post this same picture beside a photo on the last day of the school year. It's kind of a "before and after" picture where you can see how much the kid grew during the course of the school year. I never really thought much about what the kids thought of these photos of themselves until I recently came across the concept of "sharenting."
Sharenting is the overuse of social media by parents to share content based on their children. This may include an endless stream of baby pictures, their children's activities, and their accomplishments. How much is too much? Who knows. A recent British study showed that by the age of five, most children have over 1,500 images of themselves posted on social media by their parents.
We all know that most parents love their children more than anything in the world, and their intent with posting their photos is done with love and pride. However, there are both safety issues and psychological concerns that may arise from this type of massive sharenting. For instance, kids' names, dates of birth, and geographical location may be easily acquired by data brokers to sell to advertisers. This information may also be used for others to falsely assume the identities of children they find on social media sites. No one likes to think about this, but evil people who have photos and personal information of children found online can try to cause unspeakable harm to them.
If you think about it, a child's first appearance on social media is made before he or she is even born, whether it is a post of an ultrasound picture or a due date announcement. From that point on, it is pretty much "game on." In recent years, many pediatricians have expressed concerns on how sharenting can affect childhood and family life. Kids these days often feel that they are always under constant surveillance and scrutiny. Having their photos constantly posted will only increase these uneasy feelings. As a result, many children who are aware of always being monitored may develop an altered sense of self. They may feel the need to always be perfect for the camera phone that is always pointed at them, and overtime they are less likely to push boundaries and take risks that are essential for growth.
Sharenting can diminish a child's sense of autonomy as well, as they must be able to form their own identity and establish their own sense of both their private and public selves. These lines can become blurred if a child is always "performing" for a smartphone camera. As adults, I wonder if our seemingly constant compulsion to document almost everything that happens to us is teaching kids that capturing a moment on our phones is more important than actually "living the moment." This reminds me of a video clip I saw of Warren Beatty speaking about Madonna in her 1991 documentary Truth or Dare. In the scene, Madonna refused to speak to her doctor off-camera. Beatty quipped, "She doesn't want to live off-camera, much less talk. There's nothing to say off-camera."
The digital section of the New York Times posted a video on August 7, 2019, entitled If You Didn't "Sharent," Did You Even Parent? In this almost five minute video, children of various ages express their concerns with their parents about them sharing their images on social media without their permission. Some of the reasons the children express to the parents include: privacy concerns with possible hackers, embarrassing photos in a bathing suit, and not asking before posting. It seems that the parents' freedom of expression is running up against the children's wish for privacy.
The New York Times reports that by the year 2030 sharenting could account for up to seven million incidents of identity theft and over $800 million in online fraud. So what should we do? First and foremost, from a safety perspective, it is a good idea to review the privacy settings on your social media accounts. Adjust the settings to insure strangers can't get your pictures and personal information. While it may seem a little over the top, reviewing your network of friends periodically is time well spent. Cut anyone you don't know out of your friend's list. I would also consider investing into some privacy tech. New apps of this sort are being developed at a rapid pace. While many of these apps are safer platforms than social media for posting photos of your child, it should be noted that none of them are one-hundred percent hacker proof.
We can help nurture the emotional growth of the children in our lives by having meaningful discussions with them about the things that matter to them. One powerful way to do this is to discuss sharenting with them when they are mature enough to grasp the nuances involved with this concept. From some kids, the right time to have this conversation may be in elementary school, for others, middle school. It varies from child to child depending on their maturity levels. By having these types of conversations with our kids, we are validating their emotions and building bonds of trust with them. If during this conversation you find out that they are uncomfortable with you posting photos of them without their consent, then tell them you will ask them before posting from now on. If they don't mind, then secure your accounts, and post away. I look forward to seeing your back to school shots this fall!
Greg Graber, the author of Slow Your Roll- Mindfulness for Fast Times, teaches mindfulness to schools, top sports teams, and various organizations around the world. Graber, a frequent keynote speaker, currently serves as the Director of SEL & Mindfulness at Lausanne Collegiate School. He may be contacted through his website: www.greggraber.com