The perils of ‘sharenting’: The parents who share too much
By the age of five, many children will have had 1,500 photos of them shared online. But what happens when they grow up?
David Devore Jr is just like any other 18-year-old. On Instagram, he posts pictures with his prom date and of his college acceptance letter. On Twitter, he tweets about his favourite football team and shares clips from TikTok stars. But there is one thing that sets him apart from other kids his age: On YouTube, there is a video of him, aged seven, which has amassed almost 140 million views.
In 2009, David Jr, who lives in Florida, became one of the world’s first viral video stars when his dad, David Sr, uploaded a YouTube video of him, dazed and delirious, after a routine tooth extraction with the unassuming title: David After Dentist.
“I just wanted to be able to share it with friends and family because it made us laugh – David Jr included,” says David Sr “I didn’t think anyone else would click on it.”
But, within days, it had been watched more than four million times, and the numbers continued to rise.
David Jr was so popular he was flown around the world to appear on talk shows and on red carpets. But there was also a darker side to the attention. “People were accusing me of child abuse,” says David Sr. “One reporter said the police should be called and I should go to jail. They were attacking who I was as a parent.”
The Devore family’s story is a cautionary tale – albeit an extreme one – that once a child’s image is posted online, it is not easy to control where it goes. David Jr is part of the first generation of children to reach adulthood who are inheriting a digital footprint that they had no say in creating. According to a recent UK study, the average parent will post online 1,500 pictures of their child before the age of five. Almost a third of parents surveyed said they had never thought to seek a child’s permission before posting.
While David Jr says the video has been a “positive thing” in his life and is pleased that the six-figure sum his family earned is helping to pay for his college, there is growing unease among Generation Z about the online legacy their parents are handing them.
When Gwyneth Paltrow posted an Instagram selfie on a ski lift with her 14-year-old daughter, Apple, last year, a rather public tiff ensued. “Mom we have discussed this. You may not post anything without my consent,” Apple wrote.
It is a problem being echoed around the world. Last year, Microsoft released the results of an internet safety study of 12,500 teens across 25 countries. Of the teens surveyed, 42 percent said they were distressed about how much their parents “sharented” online, with 11 percent of them believing it was a “big problem” in their lives.
Earlier this year, the child of an Instagram influencer wrote an anonymous Reddit post vocalising concerns about the images posted by their mother. “It sucks because there’s so much out there about us and it’s what’s gonna come up when I’m looking for a job, when I’m dating, when anyone looks up my name,” wrote the user, before detailing a plan to stop the mother being able to take pictures: wearing hoodies printed with slogans such as, “I do not consent to be photographed and No profiting off my image”. “I know it’s really weird looking but it feels like my only option,” the user concluded.
According to Stacey Steinberg, a law professor at the University of Florida and author of Growing Up Shared: How Parents Can Share Smarter on Social Media and What You Can Do To Keep Your Family Safe in a No-Privacy World, younger people are right to be wary of “sharenting”.
“Once a picture’s out there, it’s out there. There’s a meme of a chubby, naked toddler, with a caption about overeating for the holidays,” she says. “I did a reverse image search and found that that image had been shared thousands of times. How will this child feel when they find out that they were made a public joke? Thirty years from now, the facial recognition technology may exist to pair that naked toddler image with a CEO, for example.”
As well as the scope for embarrassment, there is also the potential for damage to relationships between parents and their children. “Teenagers may become resentful to their parents,” says Yair Cohen, a UK-based lawyer who specialises in social media. “The issue of self-image is very significant at this age – this is a time when they might not like their bodies or the way they are portrayed in photographs. In the end, they may think, ‘Why did you do this to me? You’re meant to protect me but actually, you exposed me.'”
Adolescent therapist Robert Batt, who runs clinics in Riyadh and London, agrees: “Our job really is to think about the feelings of the adolescent. It’s important to make sure those feelings are respected, because if they aren’t, then we’ll start seeing consequences. What is more important: the ego and image of the parent, or the feelings of the child who’s being used as a tool?”
Future legal cases
In an era where it is common to share photographs of a baby while it is still in the womb and “mumfluencers” represent an $11bn industry, just what is the future of sharenting? Could a young person, upset by what they see as a breach of their privacy, take legal action against their parents?
“All the way around the world, people are talking about sharenting,” says Claire Bessant, an associate professor at Northumbria Law School, who is currently working on a project examining the legal protections for children of British “sharents”.
“But actually, no one has brought a case to court yet. There are legal remedies, but all of them would be really setting the parents and the child up in this huge court battle. If they won, they might get the pictures taken down. But what damage would that do to the relationship?”
Bessant’s interest in sharenting piqued in 2016 after a story published in an Austrian magazine was republished around the world. The story, which was later debunked, detailed the case of an 18-year-old girl who was suing her parents after discovering 500 childhood photos of her on their Facebook pages. The young woman was quoted as saying her parents “knew no shame” and that “every step of [her life] had been photographically recorded and subsequently made public”. Although the court case turned out to be fake, Bessant believes it Is only a matter of time before a child does launch legal proceedings against their parents.
Attitudes to sharenting vary from country to country. In 2015, German police ran a social media campaign warning parents against posting pictures of their children publicly on Facebook because paedophiles can use the images nefariously.
The following year, French lawyers warned that a child could grow up to sue their parents for risking their security. Under strict privacy laws, parents could face a year in jail or a $45,000 fine. “The French have opened a window here for something to happen a few years’ time,” says Cohen.
“There could be pictures being taken today that will at some point potentially be the basis of future court action and if this happens, the parents will need to be able to explain how those pictures were published in the child’s best interests. The signs are there that in liberal Europe there will be changes in the law sooner or later because there is a human rights issue here.”
If it is an issue for regular kids, then it is an even bigger one for the offspring of parents who blog about their families. In the US alone, 3.9 million mothers identify as bloggers. As the children of these so-called “influencers” grow up, the likelihood of potential for legal proceedings increases.
“There’s going to be a backlash as this generation comes of age and attempts to assert their own autonomy,” says Steinberg. “With a digital identity and a personality not of their own making, some of them aren’t going to be too thrilled with what was created for them. I’ve gone through a lot of iterations as I’ve grown into myself, but if I search my name on Google, the results are either things I put there myself or things which happened because of my actions, rather than those of my parents.”
The complexity of this situation is not lost on Irish blogger Karen Edwards, who has more than 103,000 followers on Instagram and runs the successful blog, Travel Mad Mum. Karen’s blog has enabled her family to travel all over the world for free, staying in luxury hotels in exotic locations in return for coverage. “Starting out as a blogger, I thought, ‘Wow, this is awesome – we’re giving the kids these amazing opportunities we couldn’t otherwise afford.’ But at the same time, my child is being used as an ad, and I do have that in the back of my mind. I think about posing this to my daughter as an adult: would you want it to have this amazing experience or would you prefer not to have your face on the internet? It’s difficult as she isn’t really able to consent – at the age of five, she isn’t old enough to fully understand.”
Because parental blogging is relatively new, there are very few regulations in place regarding the use of children in sponsored posts. Blandine Poidevin, associate lawyer and founder of Jurisexpert, a French law firm that specialises in IT law, notes that in France the law has not caught up with technology.
“If a child appears in a traditional advert, the money earned must be held in a trust fund for the child rather than being spent by the parent,” she says. “The rules about this are very strict, but these rules are not applied when it comes to social media. I’m sure that in the next few years, we will have claims from children who will ask for the money their parents have made.”
Blandine’s firm has already dealt with several court cases in which divorced parents disagree about images of their child being posted online. In May this year, a Dutch grandmother was ordered by a court to delete photographs of her grandchild on Facebook and Pinterest after the child’s mother launched legal action. The ruling stated the photographs posted on Facebook made them available to a wide audience and “it cannot be ruled out that placed photos may be distributed and may end up in the hands of third parties”.
This lesson was learned the hard way by American mother Laney Griner when she posted a picture of her 11-month-old son Sam on Flickr in 2007. Something about the expression on Sam’s face as he fist-pumped on a beach captured the internet’s attention, and the photograph became the widely shared meme, “Success Kid”. The meme is so popular it is still being shared 13 years on, and, in January of this year, the Griner family’s lawyers issued a cease and desist letter to far-right politician Steve King after the image was used in a fundraising advertisement. “Just so it’s clear,” Griner tweeted. “I have/would never give permission for use of my son’s photo to promote any agenda of this vile man or that disgusting party.”
Viral fame such as that found by David Devore Jr and Sam Griner is, of course, uncommon. But cases such as these, highlight how difficult it is to maintain control of an online image.
While most children’s photographs will not go viral, they could be used in unintended ways. In 2018, UK bank Barclays warned that parents are putting their children at risk of fraud by sharing photographs and information about their children online. By 2030, the bank forecasts that 670 million pounds ($867m) worth of fraud could stem from details shared by parents. “From a parent’s social media, third parties can figure out a child’s name, date of birth, where they live,” says Steinberg. “We know that companies are creating digital dossiers on us – what if they’re creating digital identities for our kids? We are shepherds of our children’s personal information – we’re supposed to keep their information safe.”
There is another, darker way that children’s photographs are sometimes used. In 2015, Australian investigators found more than 45 million photos of children engaged in everyday activities on paedophile image-sharing sites. The photos had been downloaded from social media sites and family blogs.
Abigail Caidoy, a Dubai-based “mummy blogger” who runs the popular site, Cuddles and Crumbs, became concerned about how photos of her children could be misappropriated after reading similar reports. “It made me stop and think,” she says. “My husband and I talked it through, and I went through old blog posts and removed photos of my sons that I no longer felt comfortable sharing – baby photos or ones without shirts.”
Caidoy grew up in the Philippines and is struck by the differing attitudes to sharenting there and in the United Arab Emirates. “A lot of the mommy bloggers that I know here post snaps of their children without including their face, just the back of their heads,” she says. “In the Middle East, people are more careful of photos being shared. But in the Philippines, everything is documented. Every month, there would be photoshoots celebrating the child’s milestones and these would be shared publicly.”
With such an abundance of childhood imagery now being produced, future historians will be facing a very different profession. “Social history is going to be vastly different,” says Ellen Smith, a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester whose work focuses on family histories in the 19th century. “Even with the boom in recording and writing in the 19th century, it’s often still a huge task even to find information about our ancestors.
“Now, there’s more of a platform for everyone to project their own identities, which is liberating in a way, but it does bring into question the profession of a historian. Our cultural identity could become blurred because there is so much information being produced and it might be too much to process.”
With social media and the widespread use of camera phones still relatively new in technology terms, it is modern-day sharenting that has yet to be judged by generations to come.
At the heart of it all lies a question: Whose stories are these to tell? Steinberg urges caution: “If we keep curating childhood through our social media posts, kids won’t remember what it feels like to actually be a child – what it feels like to be on stage doing that dance, or what it feels like to see Mickey Mouse for the first time. They’re only going to see it through our eyes through the selected pictures that we posted online.”