Sharenting: The flagrant violation of children's rights in the digital age

Every photograph, video, and post shared by parents contributes to an online presence that the child had no hand in shaping. This can have profound implications for their future.
Disseminating content on social media platforms has become a ubiquitous activity among Gen Z parents.
Disseminating content on social media platforms has become a ubiquitous activity among Gen Z parents. (Photo | AP)

Sharenting, a portmanteau of "sharing" and "parenting," refers to the increasingly ubiquitous practice of parents disseminating photographs, videos, and personal information about their offspring across social media platforms. While many caregivers engage in this behaviour with benevolent intentions, it raises profound concerns regarding the inviolable right to privacy that children are entitled to.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of a Child (UNCRC) outlines several fundamental rights that are frequently transgressed through the act of sharenting. Children possess an inherent right to privacy and right to be forgotten, which is often egregiously violated when parents divulge sensitive information, embarrassing imagery, or intimate details about their daily lives without the minor's consent.

Disseminating content on social media platforms such as Instagram, WhatsApp, and Snapchat has become a ubiquitous activity among Gen Z parents. Regrettably, many parents neglect to consider the privacy concerns and future ramifications of this habitual practice of sharing online. As parents, it is imperative to be cognizant of the potential implications of divulging personal data and images of their offspring in the digital realm.

This can have far-reaching consequences, as the child matures and may no longer desire their personal data to be publicly accessible. The case of Spencer Elden, who appeared as a naked baby on the cover of Nirvana's Nevermind album, serves as a cautionary tale for parents in the digital age.

Elden, now 31, filed a lawsuit against the band and others involved in the album's creation, alleging the image constitutes child pornography and has caused him "extreme ongoing psychic or emotional injury". Key details of the lawsuit include Elden's claims that he was the victim of "child sexual exploitation" and that the artwork was a child sexual abuse image that had been "knowingly produced, possessed and advertised" by Nirvana (the case is still pending in the US Court of Appeals).

Additionally, the UNCRC safeguards a child's right to have their best interests prioritized, as well as their entitlement to protection from unwarranted interference with their privacy – both of which can be jeopardized by the indiscriminate sharing of information.

Sharenting also creates a digital footprint for children that they have no autonomy over. Every photograph, video, and post shared by parents contributes to an online presence that the child had no hand in shaping. This can have profound implications for their future, as potential employers, educational institutions, or romantic partners may be able to access this information, potentially leading to discrimination or humiliation. Children should have the right to curate their own digital identity as they mature, but sharenting robs them of this fundamental autonomy and constrains their ability to control the narrative surrounding their online persona.

Disseminating content on social media platforms has become a ubiquitous activity among Gen Z parents.
Perils of ‘Sharenting’

In addition to the privacy concerns, sharenting can also have negative impacts on a child's emotional wellbeing and self-esteem. When parents share embarrassing or unflattering photos of their children online, it can lead to feelings of humiliation and a lack of control over one's own image. This can be especially damaging during the formative years when children are developing their sense of self and identity.

Another concerning aspect of sharenting is the potential for commercial exploitation of children. Many social media influencers and bloggers profit from sharing content featuring their children. This can include sponsored posts, product placements, and even the monetization of children's images and videos through advertising revenue.

While parents may see this as a way to supplement their income, it raises ethical questions about the commodification of children. Children do not have the ability to consent to having their image used for commercial gain, and they may not benefit directly from the profits generated. There are also concerns about the long-term impact on a child's privacy and autonomy when their image is so closely tied to their parent's brand or business.

The issue of consent is also paramount, as children are often subjected to the dissemination of personal data without their knowledge or approval. Parents frequently assume that their offspring will be comfortable with the information shared about them in the future, neglecting to recognize the child's right to self-determination.

Rosanna E Guadagno in her research paper Why do Internet Videos Go Viral? A Social Influence Analysis has said that videos that evoke powerful affective responses from viewers tend to have a higher potential for being widely disseminated across social networks. As children grow older, they should be granted increasing agency in deciding what personal details are made public, and parents should involve them in the decision-making process, respecting their wishes with regard to sharenting.

Governments and organizations have a vital role to play in safeguarding children's rights, including their entitlement to privacy. The UNCRC has been ratified by the overwhelming majority of nations worldwide, and it is incumbent upon these governing bodies to ensure that its principles are upheld. Some countries have taken proactive steps, such as enacting legislation to protect children's online privacy, but more must be done to raise awareness about the risks of sharenting and provide guidance for parents on responsible information-sharing practices. Educational institutions and healthcare providers that work with children also bear a responsibility to promote children's rights and educate caregivers on the importance of respecting their offspring's privacy.

Sharenting is a complex issue that underscores the critical need to protect children's rights in the digital age. While many parents engage in this behaviour with benevolent intentions, it is imperative to recognize that it can have profound and lasting consequences for a child's privacy, autonomy, and digital footprint. While the Indian Constitution does not explicitly delineate a child's right to privacy, it can be argued that this fundamental tenet is implicitly encapsulated within Article 21, which safeguards the right to life and personal liberty. Furthermore, the Supreme Court's landmark Puttaswamy judgment has recognized privacy as a fundamental right under Article 21.

Moreover, India's status as a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) further bolsters the child's right to privacy, as enshrined in Article 16 of the convention. Pursuant to Article 51(c) of the Indian Constitution, the state is obligated to foster respect for international law and treaty obligations. However, the Constitution also acknowledges the rights of parents to make decisions regarding the upbringing and education of their children under Articles 19 and 26, creating a potential conflict between parental rights and the child's right to privacy.

The legal implications of sharenting in India remain in a state of flux, as there are currently no specific laws addressing this burgeoning issue. Nonetheless, existing statutes, such as the Information Technology Act, 2000 and the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015, may be applicable in cases of online abuse or exploitation of children.

While the Indian Constitution and associated laws provide some safeguards for children's rights, the issue of sharenting necessitates a careful balancing of parental rights, children's privacy, and the state's obligation to protect minors. As sharenting becomes increasingly pervasive, there is a pressing need for greater awareness, comprehensive guidelines, and potential legislative interventions to ensure the best interests of children are steadfastly protected in the digital age.

(Shreya Goswami is Assistant Professor, School of Law, GD Goenka University, Gurgaon)

Disseminating content on social media platforms has become a ubiquitous activity among Gen Z parents.
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