Embarrassing and risky: When parents share too much of their children online
‘Sharenting’ has become a social phenomenon, but what do youngsters have to say about it? What is at stake? Talking Point finds out.
SINGAPORE: Like many social media users, the father of teenager Tanisha Mei Murugesh is enthusiastic about sharing her life online, and has been curating an online presence for her since she was born.
But this act of ‘sharenting’ — using social media to share images and news of one’s child — has become a matter of concern for this 14-year-old.
“My dad sent a picture to a friend, and that picture had my hand in it … I'm quite sensitive because people say that it looks fat,” she recounted.
“It didn’t really look good in that picture … so I felt rather uncomfortable. But my dad refused to take it down.”
Her parents have published countless posts about her. But she feels increasingly that “they’re bragging” online, even when she thinks a picture is “unglamorous”.
“I mean, you can keep it in your gallery, but don’t post it without my knowledge,” she said.
She is not the only child who feels this way about parents often sharing information about their children online without consent, as the programme Talking Point discovers. And this compromises not only their children’s privacy, but also their security. (Watch the episode here.)
During a session with three youngsters, including Tanisha, programme host Steven Chia asked them how they felt about being shared online, liked and commented on regularly.
Luo Zijie, whose mother has been posting photographs of him on Instagram since he was young, is worried his parents may be oversharing and that it will be “very embarrassing”, especially when his baby pictures are online.
“It’ll be cute, but … I'm already in Primary Five,” pointed out the 11-year-old. “You’d feel like a mummy’s boy … Then your friends would keep on making fun of you.”
Nine-year-old Sophie Tay, who has written some letters to her mother, recalled how she reacted when her mum was thinking of sharing the details online: “I told her I didn’t want her to … because it’s very personal.”
Over in China, some children are also beginning to realise the importance of protecting their privacy online — and are making their unhappiness known.
Last week, Zhang Chuyi, 10, wrote to a congress of the Young Pioneers of China in Shanghai: “If my face is still frequently exposed on my parents' social media, such as WeChat Moments, it might not be safe for me.”
She and her friends were hoping that their parents will stop overexposing them. "If they want to share our images and privacy online, they need to obtain our permission," she added.
‘ABUSE OF SHARENTING’
There are no local ‘sharenting’ statistics, but in the United Kingdom, a 2016 study found that the average parent would have posted 1,500 photos on social media by his or her child’s fifth birthday — close to six pictures a week.
Associate Professor Jung Younbo from Nanyang Technological University’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information believes that ‘sharenting’ is a social phenomenon because families today have fewer kids, “so the children become a very precious feature”.
“(People) can easily post their photos on their social media accounts,” he added. “And then … the younger generation is very keen on sharing their personal stories on social media. So (sharing parenting stories) becomes a kind of second nature.”
He noted that children can find it embarrassing when their parents overshare, but said “it’s impossible” for parents to get consent from their little ones, “so they do whatever they believe is very pleasing”.
“But because most of the parents are overjoyed to have the new babies, sometimes they do things without thinking about consequences,” he added.
And when people “start to overuse the technology” and overshare, even with strangers, then there is an “abuse of sharenting”, he pointed out.
In a country like France, privacy laws are so stringent that parents could be jailed up to a year and fined up to €45,000 (S$69,000) if convicted of publicising intimate details of their children’s lives without consent.
There is also the issue of security. By creating these digital footprints of their children, parents could be unwittingly exposing them to predators.
To highlight the hidden dangers of oversharing, Chia spent one morning going through parent blogger Liang May’s social media posts.
She shares a lot about her two children — on average, four posts a week — on her blog as well as Instagram and Facebook accounts. But she says she has taken efforts to protect her family’s privacy.
Within a few hours, however, the Talking Point host could put her son’s school on a shortlist of three and pinpoint her exact home address.
She was shocked at what he managed to dig up, which also includes where her children go for their enrichment classes, such as in music, swimming and wushu. “I’m not extremely comfortable about it,” she said.
“I take great efforts not to share where I live. And if you can pick that up just by looking at the floor plan and doing some online digging, I think that’s quite scary.”
Asked if she may be oversharing, she said that, in hindsight, she may not have posted so much online. “I’ll cross my fingers that people don’t go digging around,” she added.
So why do some parents post information about their children online, despite the security concerns? One father said he was not really worried about his child’s security in Singapore, while another said “it’s a calculated risk that we take”.
One mother said: “You have a special moment, and sometimes you don’t think too much about it, and you just share it. It’s intuitive, almost. You don’t consider security or any other aspect at that moment.”
While it may be challenging for parents to stop posting, they could take precautions by, for example, reviewing the privacy settings of their pages, recommends Alfred Siew, who edits the Techgoondu.com blog and runs a technology and media consultancy.
“(With) anything public, as we know, anybody can download it, edit it (and) share it,” said the father of two, who maintains strict privacy and security controls on his own social media accounts.
“If you’re sensitive about, say, people knowing how all your kids are, where they study (and) where they go … you might want to rethink your priority settings.”
He advised against setting pictures of one’s children for public sharing. “Secondly, I'd be very sensitive about birthdays … because they can be used for verification and other things,” he added.
“Also, you might want to … look at your friends list every once in a while.”
Parents do get excited about sharing news of their children, noted Chia, and “since this is the social media generation”, he doubts parents will stop doing it.
“But what we can do is to limit what we share and whom we share it with,” he agreed.
Watch this episode of Talking Point here. New episodes every Thursday at 9.30pm on Mediacorp Channel 5.