Vidushi Nagpal, a New Delhi schoolteacher, loved sharing photos of her daughters -- aged 17 and 20 -- on social media. On Twitter, she would post pictures of them cooking and baking. On Instagram, the girls sang, danced and played musical instruments. Then there were blogs about how the duo was helping her manage the house during the pandemic. Compliments poured in from family members in India, the U.S., U.K. and Australia, filling the 40-year-old's heart with joy.
Recently, though, Nagpal (not her real name) got a rude wake-up call. During a family discussion, her younger daughter said she was "fed up" with her mother's obsession with sharing her personal life online. "My friends know what I ate, wore and did even before I can tell them! I feel cheated mom: It's a breach of my privacy," she wailed. Confronted by her daughter, the shocked mother could barely speak. Eyes downcast, she just shook her head slowly from side to side.
Meet the "sharents" -- parents who blog, tweet and document all aspects of their children's lives. Driven by the relentless rise of social media, the word has gained traction, even in traditional Asian societies. Suddenly, sharents seem to be everywhere, breathlessly curating content about their kids. The digital documentation can even extend to in utero, with granular ultrasound visuals of the unborn child.
This relentless broadcasting is sometimes done to boost self-esteem, sometimes to induce envy or build a social media following to be monetized later through collaborations with consumer brands. But it is also raising ethical questions. For instance, how does this enthusiastic sharing by the parent impact the child's physical or mental well-being, both now and in the future? That photo of your daughter prancing around the pool in a bikini may seem adorable when she's 3. But could it prompt bullying at 13?
Consumed by competitive spirits, or just plain narcissism, many parents seem unmindful of the ramifications of nonconsensual content sharing. Hollywood actor Gwyneth Paltrow learned this the hard way when her teenage daughter Apple chided her for sharing a photo of the two at a ski resort on her Instagram account. "Mom we have discussed this. You may not post anything without my consent," Apple wrote on her own Instagram account. The fact that the post had garnered 150,000 likes did not delight the teenager.
In extreme cases, the law has been invoked. Earlier this year a Dutch court ordered a grandmother to take down pictures of her grandchildren that she had posted on Facebook without their parents' permission. In another case, an 18-year-old Austrian woman sued her parents because they had posted "embarrassing" childhood photographs on Facebook.
Despite the backlash, sharents have their supporters. In an increasingly fragmented world, worsened by social distancing, social media provides an ecosystem that gives them support from a like-minded community that may elude them in real life. "You get practical advice, reassurance, praise from friends, even strangers. People admire what your kids are accomplishing or how you're bonding as family. What's not to love?" asks Delhi-based parent Megha Kohli.
Experts, however, take a different view. Stacey B. Steinberg writes in her academic paper "Sharenting: Children's Privacy in the Age of Social Media" that "children have an interest in privacy. Yet parents' rights to control the upbringing of their children and parents' rights to free speech may trump this interest." She adds that: "This dual role of parents in their children's online identity gives children little protection as their online identity evolves."
Steinberg's observations are buttressed by global surveys highlighting the pitfalls of excessive sharenting. A Microsoft survey of 12,500 teens across 25 countries found that 42% were distressed about their parents' online sharenting, with 11% believing it was a "big problem." A U.K. study found that parents post an average of 1,500 pictures of their children online before the age of 5, while more than 80% of children have an online presence by the age of 2. Almost a third of parents surveyed said they had never thought to seek a child's permission before posting.
Given the online environment, teeming with possibilities of online predation, cyberbullying and blackmail, parents should take their children's privacy concerns more seriously, behavioral experts say.
"The digital world is an everyday part of our lives now, so the sooner the child is involved in the conversation from an early age the better," says psychologist Suman Bakshi. Running the photos you intend to broadcast past children is a good start, according to Bakshi. They may provide a perspective you may have missed due to lack of objectivity, she adds.
Playing the dual role of parent and chronicler is not child's play. So the next time you hit that "post" button, it might be worth pausing to ponder the consequences of publishing that photo.
Neeta Lal is a Delhi-based journalist