Perils of ‘Sharenting’

Parenting is a journey, like none other, a lesson in constant learning and unlearning. A whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
For representational purposes
For representational purposes

Parenting is a journey, like none other, a lesson in constant learning and unlearning. A whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. As one crisscrosses the terrain of parenthood, one learns how to navigate the complexities and embrace the shared nuances of being a parent.

In this digital age, these complexities are augmented by technology, which manifests itself in many forms, some positive and some possibly negative. Being a parent amidst the charm of the internet and social media, while challenging is almost irresistible. The gratification and adulation experienced while sharing the lives of children on social media can, however, lead to the negative fallout of what experts refer to as ‘Sharenting’.

Coined by Steven Leckart back in the early 2010s, ‘Sharenting’ is the practice of millennial moms and dads, who overshare a multitude of information in all forms—text, video and photos of their children on the plethora of available social media platforms. Parents unwittingly compromise their child’s online privacy by oversharing and documenting moments from a child’s early days on the internet, moments that may prove embarrassing/awkward for the child who has no say in what is being shared.

These digital footprints can become fodder for cyberbullying and/or future discrimination. The risks are even greater for influencer and vlogger parents, who use their child as a subject for content creation. According to a study by Pew Research, videos with children who appear to be under the age of 13 received three times as many views on average than other videos. This lucrative business model to make quick money can lead to child abuse of unimaginable proportions. Today, infants acquire digital footprints even before they are born, when first-time parents put up ultrasound snapshots on social media to announce their parenthood. What this essentially means is that the digital footprints of future adults can easily be traced back to their embryonic days.

The risks of ‘Sharenting’ are manifold. Oversharing of pictures, videos and other information about a child can result in Identity Theft and Digital Kidnapping—a phenomenon in which cybercriminals use minors’ photos, posing as them, or posing as their parents. While some of this may seem harmless, it can seriously affect your child’s digital well-being and privacy.  It can also subject them to various forms of cyber fraud. According to a study by Barclays, by 2030 ‘Sharenting’ could result in almost £670 million in cyber frauds.

While it may appear counterintuitive, it’s also about a child’s consent. When we document a child’s story on the internet, we fail to realise that all of this is happening without his/her consent, something they didn’t ask for. Harvard Professor and Researcher Leah Plunkett in her book Sharenthood notes that today, we “make decisions to disclose digital data about children that invade traditional zones of privacy and threaten kids’ and teens’ current and future opportunities, as well as their ability to develop their own sense of self.” From a legal standpoint, the issue of a child’s privacy needs urgent and special attention. Currently, there aren’t many scholarly debates on a child’s right to privacy on the internet.

Some children’s privacy scholars have noted that “children should have an individual right for privacy against their parents” and this right “should be qualified according to the child’s age and evolving capacities.” Perhaps, it’s time for the world to take note of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which specifically enumerates a child’s right to privacy.

The conversation about the online safety of children is still centred around how children use social media and not their parents. But it’s now the time to turn the tables and ask the parents—are you a ‘Sharent’? Truth to be told, we are still in the early days of raising awareness on various aspects of ‘Sharenting’, the term is still not widespread and little research exists on the subject. But the consequences are real.

More children are falling victim to online grooming than before, a phenomenon wherein an adult builds an emotional connection with gullible children to gain their trust for the purposes of sexual abuse or exploitation. That’s why Assam Police’s campaign on ‘Sharenting’ is perhaps one of the earliest interventions by any police department. Our goal is to initiate these conversations about the perils of oversharing and find ways to safeguard children’s digital well-being.

An ounce of protection is worth a pound of cure The practice of recording and documenting the life moments of a child is common among all cultures and civilisations. The advent of technology has not only made it easier but also public. Thus, it is incumbent on every parent to THINK BEFORE THEY POST any information about their child on social media.  Avoid using Personally Identifiable Information (PII), which could potentially be used to identify a particular individual. Cyber criminals can scrap useful information such as a maiden name and date of birth from seemingly innocuous social media posts. If one sees a friend or family member posting content, which may compromise a child’s online safety, talk to them—explain how a normal Facebook post can cause unimaginable trouble for a child.

Being a parent in the digital age mandates one to be a responsible social media user. It’s important for every parent to acknowledge the inherent risks of ‘Sharenting’. Exercising caution and refraining from sharing explicit/embarrassing pictures of a child can ensure that it will not attract gratuitous attention, both in the present or the future. It is time to abnegate the ideas that govern our innate social media behaviour. Before posting any information about a child, one should always ask—is this something one would want someone else to share about oneself? Could this potentially harm the child in the future? In summation, ask oneself—is this something I want to be a part of my child’s cyber footprint?
In the interest of our children, these questions need to be answered, sooner rather than later.

(Research and collaboration—Salik Khan, Creative Consultant, Assam Police)

Harmeet Singh

Commissioner of Police, Guwahati, and Incharge, Assam Police Smart Social Media Centre, ‘Nagrik Mitra’

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