Growing up in an online world

Experts say parents already have the skills to safely share stories of their children on social media

By Suzanne Rent

Lisa and Andrew Spinney-Hutton took some time thinking about how they’d share photos and stories of their daughter before she was born. The couple already watched how friends and family shared content about their children online, so they had a good handle on what they’d share, too.

“We went into this with an idea of how we would have rules for her, mostly because she can’t consent,” Spinney-Hutton says.

Not posting any photos on any social media platform wasn’t an option, though; Lisa and Andrew’s families both live out of province, so they knew they’d want to share some photos of their daughter. Still, they have rules for what they do share. Spinney-Hutton says they only share flattering photos of their daughter. That means no photos of her in the middle of a tantrum or screaming and no photos of her in the bathtub. Usually the photos are from special occasions like Christmas and birthdays.

The couple also signed up for 23Snaps, a free social network and photo sharing app for families. Spinney-Hutton says there’s more privacy on 23Snaps than on Facebook.

“Family has been very happy with that and it’s easier to use than email,” Spinney-Hutton says. “And it’s not public.”

The Internet and social media are just another issue parents need to think about now. Many children today have digital lives created for them from the day they’re born. But that also means content is preserved online forever. Often called “sharenting,” what parents post about their children can shape their online identities from a young age.

MediaSmarts, a non-profit charitable organization in Ottawa that studies and teaches families digital and media literacy, is working on some of the first research on youth, digital media, and “sharenting” in Canada. The group published The Digital Well Being of Canadian Families in 2018. It’s one of a few studies the organization is working on about the digital lives of Canadian families and youth.

According to the report, the average child has 1,500 photos of them posted online by the time they’re five, while 92% of children in the U.S. under the age of two have some digital presence. For this study, the parents who took part were asked a series of questions. Seventy-three per cent of parents said they sometimes shared content about their children, including photos, videos, and blogs. Forty-three per cent of parents make sure content is shared only with friends and family. Three out of five parents said they shared content to keep in touch with friends and family. And 17% of parents said they asked for their child’s consent before posting a photo or video that included them. Another 11% of parents said they regretted content posted online.

Kara Brisson-Boivin, director of research with MediaSmarts, says they learned parents feel pressure to be seen as strict. But she also learned social media is a tool for sharing.

“They are brilliant for those reasons because they are giving us ways to share those things in a way we never had before,” Brisson-Boivin says. “You can self-educate. That can help you get the most control as you can.”
That means understanding the platforms and always checking privacy settings on platforms, which she says can be difficult and time consuming but incredibly important. She says it’s also important for parents to model good behavior for their children.

“This will be an ongoing challenge but one that’s best worked out in tandem with your partner and your children,” she says.

Brisson-Boivin says parents already have the skills to safely navigate an online world and “sharent” in a way that works for everyone. She says parents already make rules for chores, bedtimes, and homework. They already create routines for their children. Now they just have to consider rules on a new platform. She says the parent-child relationship is one of trust and if the trust is offline, it will exist online, too.

“Parents have been trying to do their best and working hard at it for centuries,” she says. “You already have the skills. You already know how to do this. It’s just a different environment.”

Steve MacKay says he and his wife, Alecia, don’t have a specific plan in place for how they share content about their five-year-old son, James. But they do have rules. MacKay has accounts on a few platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. He says he treats each one differently, depending on the audience. On Twitter, he’s created a character for himself. His avatar is a photo of himself covered with a mask. He never posts photos of James and uses gender-neutral pronouns. He may post a photo, but covers James’ face with an emoji.

“I don’t know most of the people on there,” MacKay says. “I don’t think they should know the details about James. They don’t need to know what my kid looks like.”

MacKay uses Facebook to keep in touch with family. There are fewer rules there. MacKay says he knows everyone on his friend list and has a work, friend, or family relationship with them. MacKay says, too, when they post photos of James with other children, they get the permission from those kids’ parents first.

“This is our way of sharing James and his milestones with family,” MacKay says.

MacKay calls Instagram “the muddy middle.” Like Twitter, MacKay doesn’t know most of his followers on his Instagram account. He uses it mostly as a photo album and rarely interacts with anyone. He does remember posting a photo of a James with no clothes running around in the backyard.

“Alecia and I had a talk and we thought maybe we should take that one down,” MacKay says. “There are unsavoury people in the world. There’s the embarrassment factor, too. When he grows up, not everyone needs to know everything about him.”

However, some content can reach an audience much wider that parents expect. And what’s in that content can affect the child-parent relationship. In December 2018, a father in Ohio posted a video of his daughter walking a five-kilometre trek to school. The walk was her punishment for bullying a student on the school bus. The video went viral and a number of news organizations wrote stories about it. Parents weighed in, either supporting or criticizing the father for the punishment and posting the video.
Dr. Kiran Pure, a psychologist in Dartmouth, says by age four or five, children have a sense of themselves and can be embarrassed by situations in which they’re involved. She says punishment by humiliation isn’t an option.

“I think when you’re posting [on social media], be mindful of your child’s integrity,” Pure says. “You never want to compromise that. There are all kinds of ways to deal with the worst behaviours without shaming.”

For example, Pure suggests cutting off screen time, making earlier bedtimes, setting limits, but not using ridicule. She says when she works with families in her practice, parents will often want to share a video demonstrating behaviour.

“I know every single time a parent shows me a video, a child doesn’t want me to see it,” Pure says.

The Internet has a long memory. Pure says parents should think about identity theft, but also that their child will eventually be out in the world, looking for a job and making new friends.

Pure says parents should think how they would feel about someone posting content about them they didn’t like.

“Ask, ‘What purpose does this serve?’” Pure says. “Do you want your friends and family to judge your child negatively, because that’s what they will do.”

MacKay says sharing photos and stories about James does bring a lot of joy to family and friends. He says funny stories James tells are often an antidote to more harmful and often toxic content he and family see online. Still, he says parents should always keep in mind who’s in the photos and who’s seeing them online.

“I think you need to listen to your child, if they raise any concerns about it,” MacKay says. “And keep in mind who your audience is. Not your target audience, but who could potentially see it.”

MacKay says he and Alecia will rework their rules when James is older, including not posting or taking down photos he doesn’t like.

Spinney-Hutton says new parents should have a plan for how they will share their family life online. She says stress and sleep deprivation, and even the exciting news that comes with childhood milestones, can mean parents don’t think about the consequences.

“Don’t post naked photos of your kid or at least think about it first,” Spinney-Hutton says.

Spinney-Hutton says in their home, how social media is used will be an ongoing discussion. She says when their daughter is older, they will have a talk about media literacy and online content.

“If she says no to using a photo, then we have to say okay,” Spinney-Hutton says.

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