Parents grapple with online ‘sharenting,’ consider asking kids for consent

Parents grapple with online 'sharenting,' consider asking kids for consent
An Instagram flower wall is shown at the Facebook Canadian Summit in Toronto on Wednesday, March 28, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Donovan

TORONTO:  Within days of giving birth to her first child, celebrity watchers noticed Khloe Kardashian had an Instagram account registered for her daughter True.

It wasn’t long before more than 200,000 curious users had signed up as followers to see what exactly the account would share and whether it would represent a new example of the divisive “sharenting” trend.

Some digitally engaged parents can’t seem to help themselves when it comes to documenting the lives of their children online, whether on blogs or social media platforms that may or may not have privacy settings enacted.

Others, meanwhile, have chosen to not leave a single digital footprint for their kids, imagining a future in which they might not appreciate having their childhood photos or memories shared widely and potentially indexed by Google and other search engines.

MediaSmarts, a non-profit digital literacy organization, is in the process of researching sharenting as part of a study on digital family life in Canada. Not much Canadian data on the trend is available, says director of research Kara Brisson-Boivin, but she pointed to a 2016 study out of the U.K. that suggested there are 1,500 pictures of an average child posted online by the time they’re five.

“I don’t think it’s a far stretch to imagine the Canadian context would be somewhat similar,” Brisson-Boivin said.

Previous studies conducted by MediaSmarts did suggest parents may want to tread carefully when they share, she added.

Surveys found that young people were very savvy about controlling their privacy settings on social media and were very particular about how they’re represented online.

“They work quite hard to negotiate privacy levels within and amongst their family and peers and it was very apparent that young people, especially tweens and teens, wanted to keep their family and friends separate online,” Brisson-Boivin said.

Ryan Letwiniuk admits he and his wife don’t entirely see eye to eye when it comes to sharing stories about their boys, ages seven and 10, online. She is more active on Facebook _ albeit with carefully controlled privacy settings that limit visibility to friends and family _ while he is a little more leery of mentioning his kids on social media.

“I think it really comes down to identification. Anything that makes the kids easily identifiable or identifiable with a little bit of work is where I try to draw the line. So no full names, no locations and anything with my own account I don’t list where I work, no last names, no schools,” Letwiniuk said.

“I try to make it hard for the average layperson to find information that could be used for harassing or bullying or things like that.”

But he notes the couple has discovered they can’t always be in control of how images of their sons are shared online. Both his kids play hockey and there are other parents who take countless photos at the rink and eagerly share them afterwards.

“Every kid as they grow up and get older they’re going to be able to find a lot of stuff about themselves as children, whether the parents do (the posting) or not,” Letwiniuk said.

“But from a parenting perspective, we don’t want to contribute to that. I want to do what I can to put that choice in the hands of my kids whenever possible. I don’t want to exaggerate the problem.”

Many parents who do actively share details of their kids’ lives online are now seeking consent before posting any photos or stories, Brisson-Boivin noted.

“We know a lot of parents consider kids as early as four and five old enough to give consent,” she said.

“The major research on sharenting coming out of the U.S. and the U.K. (suggests) a loud minority of parents are advocating for (other) parents to have conversations about consent with their kids, to ask their child, ‘Mommy took a picture of you, this is what the picture looks like. Mommy would like to share this with your aunts and uncles on this platform, can I do that?”’

Sasha Emmons, editor-in-chief of Today’s Parent, says the issue of consent has resonated with many of the magazine’s readers and she herself has taken to asking permission before posting online about her 13-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son.

“I think when we first started posting on Facebook we were kind of heady with that connection, with the instant feedback you would get, and maybe hadn’t thought through all of the consequences. But now I would say I’m much more cautious,” Emmons said.

“As (my daughter) has gotten older and older she wants to be in control of what’s posted about her on social media, so I do so much less now.”