Austin never got to choose not to be on the internet.
Beginning with annals of his parents’ previous attempts at conception, through two rounds of IVF, a photo of the plastic stick that finally held “two pink lines,” and the real-time video of them receiving the sonogram, even before he had inhaled his first breath, Austin’s story was already being written for him.
Eleven years on, the saga continues: harrowing tales of learning to walk and #poopingonthepotty; the time a bout of diarrhea and his mother’s Facebook friends’ cure-all advise went viral; a video of getting ready for his first school dance and later getting rejected by a first crush at the park; a report card littered with emojis and “ALL Bs!”; a holy-hell post by his father about the politics and unfair treatment of Austin’s little league tryouts.
Once Austin begged to have what he considered to be an unflattering photo of him eating birthday cake deleted from his mother’s Instagram page, but when he told her he hated it, she replied, “No sweetie, it’s cute.”
The relationship between child mortification and parental pride is well-established. Few would argue that there is something wrong — and everything natural — about a parent wanting to share some of the joys, even sorrows or challenges, of their children’s lives with their intimate circle.
But with social media redefining the nature intimacy, that line isn’t so clear. What might have been, pre-Facebook, sharing with a few people at the office, now could include an audience of 500, 5000, 50,000, or more.
“What happens when the slow telos of parenthood meets the insatiable rhythms of social media?” Hua Hsu asked in a piece he wrote for The New Yorker.
The subject is the book Sharenthood: Why We Should Think Before We Talk About Our Kids Online by Leah Plunkett, an associate professor at the University of New Hampshire Law School and a faculty associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, at Harvard University.
In the book, she argues that “sharenting” happens any time an adult in charge of a child’s well-being transmits private details about a child via digital channels.
Plunkett’s primary concern with sharenting is that it essentially creates a “digital dossier” that often goes back to before a child is born, as with Austin. In our dealings with the so-called tech devils for their services, we surrender our data and turn a blind eye to the unforeseen consequences and worst-case scenarios of where and how that data gets used.
For adults, this deal is concerning enough. But in the context of children, it casts an even more ominous glow: by turning your child into a set of data points for social media or other technology (think Amazon wish lists, Nest cams, or photos and videos on cloud servers), Plunkett argues you have accelerated their entry into “digital life.” (By 2030, studies show that nearly two-thirds of identity-fraud cases affecting today’s children will have resulted from sharenting.)
More sinister still is about how parents’ innocent posts about their kids might create real-world outcomes, such as difficulties in school, acceptance with peers or a community, fodder for bullying, college admissions, professional reputation, or relationship prospects.
And herein lies another meaningful concern: If you, as a parent, have already created an online character (or entity) for your child, it could very likely be affecting their ability to develop their own story and sense of self.
What happens when the story that your child wants to tell about themselves bumps up against the one you’re already telling? What if they can’t live up to the perky, perfect Insta-glow picture that you have told the world is their (and your) life? What if your child doesn’t want to be the “good girl” or “bad boy” character, or any other character for that matter, that you’ve created and gets you so many “likes” and “loves”?
What if their shame in not being enough or “right,” according to the story you’re telling, is that much heavier because they don’t want to disappoint you?
What happens if they internalize the story you’re telling and stop trying to figure out and tell their own? Stories don’t only reflect life, they also shape it, which is one reason we often end up becoming the stories we tell about our experiences.
It’s difficult enough growing up and learning to separate yourself from your parents or authority figures and engage in rites of passage that aren’t always easy to navigate. Sharenting deprives children of agency — and few life skills are as important and essential as agency.
Gone are the days when parents relied on a physical scrapbook or photo album and their own audible voice to share the sweet (and scary) moments of their children’s lives. Mark Zuckerberg has convinced humankind that the time-honored art of storytelling is best executed every time a person has something to express or share that strikes them.
And therein lies the problem when it comes to sharenting: when a moment or thought strikes them — meaning, the story a parent is sharing with the world turns from being about the child and becomes focused on the self.
You may bring a child into this life or bring a child into yours; and as much as you participate in and help to influence their life, it still ought to be their purview to shape and tell the story of that life as they wish — with as much agency is healthy and appropriate at each stage of their development.
Net: post mindfully.
Michele DeMarco is an award-winning writer, therapist, clinical ethicist, and trauma researcher specializing in moral injury. Follow her website.
This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.