“Sharenting” is more than just posting pictures of your kids on social media. The convenience of our digital age – with Alexa, Nest Cams, and Gizmos infiltrating our lives and daily routines – has lured us into having a false sense of security. The dangers of exposing kids’ personal information and data are alarmingly real. Leah Plunkett is a University of New Hampshire law professor, Faculty Associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, and author of the bestselling book, Sharenthood: Why We Should Think before We Talk about Our Kids Online. She joins us for a conversation about the oft-overlooked consequences of sharenting. Leah gives practical guidance on how to make values-based decisions that protect our children’s privacy, autonomy, and sense of self in the digital age.
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The Do's and Don'ts of "Sharenting"
Intro: Welcome to the Equal Parts podcast brought to you by Care@Work.
Emily Paisner: Being a working parent is hard, but knowing the rules of when or when not to share things about your kids digitally can be even harder. We post pictures of our kids on Instagram and share the details of their lives on Facebook, but should we be thinking twice before we do that? Are we neglecting to think about the consequences, the potential privacy risks? What are the consequences anyway, and how serious can they be? My guest today is going to help us get to the bottom of these big questions. Leah Plunkett is an associate professor at the University of New Hampshire School of Law. She's also the author of a fantastic new book called Sharenthood: Why We Should Think before We Talk about Our Kids Online.
During our conversation, Leah talks about the risk parents may not even be aware of when they share pictures and personal information about their children online. She also gave advice about the steps we as parents can take to ensure that our children's privacy, autonomy, and sense of self remain protected in the digital age. Have a listen. Leah, thank you so much for being here today.
Leah Plunkett: It is a pleasure.
Emily: Let's start with a simple question. What exactly is sharenting? What is your definition of it?
Leah: Sharenting in my definition refers to all the ways that parents, grandparents, teachers, aunts, uncles, coaches, and all trusted adults in children's lives, engage in activities digitally with children's private information. Now I recognize that's a very law professor definition, so I'll break it down a little bit. Typically when we hear the word sharenting, which we're starting to hear more and more, it refers very specifically to what parents post on social media about their own kids.
While that is a huge part of sharenting, it is only the tip of the very much even larger iceberg where sharenting includes things that we do with our kid's information through smart devices in our homes, through educational apps in their schools, and through all the different ways that the things on our bodies, in our homes, in our schools are picking up passively or actively, private data about our kids, analyzing it, acting upon it, and probably sharing it again with other third parties.
Emily: That's a lot, so that's very frightening to some of us parents who-- We have always had data privacy concerns. It's definitely crossed my mind before, "Should I be posting, or should I not?" It seems to be just the new normal of this digital age that we live in, but what are some of the specific risks to children when their parents or other loved ones are sharing their pictures or personal information online?
Leah: I put the risks into three broad categories, so I'll give those to you and give you a specific example in each. First category would be those harms that are criminal, illegal, or just plain old, dangerous. An example, there would be a hacker's ability to get a social security number that may have been let out in a data breach. Combine that with other private and identifying information about a child that may have been part of a data breach or may just be things that their parents or loved ones are putting out into the universe about them and then applying for a credit product or service in that child's name. Children's social security numbers are great targets for this because typically, there's no legitimate reason that most kids should have any type of credit product tied to their social security number, so that's our first category.
Our second category are risks that are legal or not clearly illegal but are invasive and suspect. Specific example there would be the ways that data brokers, which are like credit bureaus, aggregate all types of information about kids, and package it and resell it to third parties who buy it. The Center for Law and Information Policy at Fordham Law School a couple years back did a study of a representative sample of data brokers and found information about kids as young as two years old. It found lists the data brokers had put together a 14 and 15-year-old girls who needed family planning services and so on, and those digital data points are coming from a range of sources. We don't know all of them, but we should understand that a number of those sources are or might be things that parents and other loved ones are sharing.
Last but certainly not least, is the category of harm to the child sense of self, to their ability to develop their own identity in the world and have the silly, stupid, misguided, mischievous things they do, even the mistakes they make forgotten about as they become older and as they become adults. Instead, we're doing the opposite. We’re creating a digital record that will live far beyond that embarrassing temper tantrum they had when they were four.
Emily: There are plenty of devices that we're using all time and watching like the Alexa, the Nest cams, the Gizmo watches. I just saw on the news last week about someone who had hacked into a device and was talking to their children through it, which was just--
Leah: The Ring cameras.
Emily: Yes, which was just horrifying. I've even heard you talk about smart diapers, which completely blows my mind. Not sure why those are necessary, but they exist. What do parents need to be aware of when it comes to this personal data and information that these gadgets and devices are gathering?
Leah: Parents need to know that if it is digital, it is not private. There are some forms of digital data that can be more private than others. Give you a personal example, I have a running text thread with two of my very best friends from college. That text thread contains pictures of our kids, cute anecdotes, anecdotes where we're blowing off steam.
We're not putting that on social. We're not putting it in an email. We're not making it open to the world. I trust my two friends 1000% not to screenshot it and reshare it. Could metadata be extracted from my text message exchanges? Sure. Could a phone get hacked into or lost? Sure. I think the risks of all of those things are fairly low so I'm comfortable sharenting in that way so I can stay connected to my friends but that’s still sharenting. That is still digitally transmitting children's private information, and I think we get lolled into a false sense of security because Alexis sits on our counter with our can opener and the Gizmo watch is on our kid’s body just like their mittens are.
The app where they're learning to read on the tablet is right next to the book that's also on their desk. These devices and services are in our homes, in our schools, on our bodies. Sometimes in our bodies. There's a smart pill now that is the sensor. It can tell when you've taken it. I think that these products are designed for us to forget or overlook that even though they are among us and on us and inside of us, they are not keeping the information within the brick-and-mortar confines of our homes or our schools or our other private or at least in the case of a school maybe not fully private, but still more intimate community-focused space.
Emily: What do we do about all this? Should we delete all of our social media accounts immediately? Should we forego technology altogether? These are the primary ways that we're connecting and communicating with one another. Should we just abandon it all?
Leah: No, we should have exactly these types of conversations within our homes, within our schools, within our communities. We should have them with vendors. We should have them with lawmakers and regulators and we should get back to a values-based discussion of what we want technology to do.
I have social media accounts. I have a smartphone. I do believe that if it is possible to go low-tech or no-tech with everyday things that I'm required to do in my home or for my kids, I do prefer that. That's just a personal preference. I think when it comes to what we need to do collectively, it's about thinking about values. We don't need to get rid of our phones, but do we need to think, gosh, we really value play, the importance of plays. Childhood and adolescence being spaces where kids can make mischief, make mistakes and grow up better for having made them. If we really mean that, our technology should reflect it and not extract digital information and again, analyze it, aggregate it and act upon it when it comes to things our kids are doing in their daily routines.
Emily: Let's break it down in a way that our listeners can really understand it. What are some real don'ts for parents when it comes to sharenting? Which shouldn't they be sharing? 100% absolutely do not post this.
Leah: Do not post any pictures of children in a room feeling state of dress or really undress I should say, even if it is a perfectly innocent innocuous photo. No beach shots, no bathtub shots, even if infants. We don't need to feed the child abuse machine that exists online when it comes to sexual abuse images that are out there. We do know sadly that a number of images that are available are photoshopped and otherwise redone images of real kids. Don't put your kids scantily clad photos on the internet ever. Don't post your kids' full name, date, time, place, or other details of birth when you think about the potential for identity theft down the road, having it publicly available. Even if your social settings are set to private, that information can be screenshotted and reshared depending on how vigilant the social media companies are being about the third-party app providers on their platforms potentially used in other ways. Don't put that out there, those kinds of details are the ways that thieves can get access to making fake profiles to get fraudulent credit products.
I strongly recommend that parents unless there's really no way around it, don't use surveillance or tracking devices on your children. We know that those devices are often not fully secure in terms of hackers. We know that unfortunately if kids are subject to abuse and neglect very often the perpetrator is within their broader social network, and so making it possible for someone to gain access to a device, let's say they can guess the password that you as a parent have set up or they get the child to tell them the password, they can know where your child is in real-time.
Also, if you are using a device to try to keep your child in bounds, a device that's going to notify you if they go somewhere they shouldn't, for instance, why serve that information up to a company that your child is doing something you don't want them to do? Maybe that company will never do anything with that, okay, but I'm skeptical. I'm skeptical because we know there's such a major data market through data brokers and other third parties for aggregating information about people of all ages. I just think it's a matter of time before the digital trails that we've amassed about our own kids wind up going into in greater number these software products that try to predict, for instance, what fit a person might be for a job or what fit they might be for a school. I really worry that that can be used against them down the road.
Emily: If we listen to all of your don'ts around what we should not be doing on social media, should we go back and delete some of those things that fall into those categories, or is it too late, it's out there, there's nothing we can do about it now?
Leah: Delete them because even though you're right, it's out there somewhere, you have to think about especially as your kids get older to make it less easy for other people who may be curious about them to find information about them that's served up in a nice package. I say, go back and delete. I've done some of that.
Emily: Are there any instances where it's okay to share?
Leah: Absolutely, and this gets back to my firm conviction that this needs to be a values-based ongoing discussion. There are plenty of times where values may be more important to us than privacy. One example would be putting a value on building human connection and promoting health and safety. I think we have seen incredibly powerful sharenting from families who have children with disabilities or developmental delays or families whose kids have been victims of gun violence.
For those folks who engage in sharenting whether it's through social media or other digital platforms, they are making the personal political-- I don't mean necessarily partisan, but they are making it a call for change, a call for advocacy and without revealing the real deal, what it feels like to have a child on the spectrum or a child who may never talk or a family where if protection for folks with pre-existing conditions goes away from our laws, your family will become bankrupt because they can't afford the medication that keeps your child from having seizures.
We need to talk about those things. I absolutely think that sharenting in a values-based way in service of promoting social change, promoting health and safety for your family and others are very, very strong reasons to sharent. There are others as well but that's I think a particularly compelling example.
Emily: Even if parents have firm rules when they've had discussions around what we will and will not share of our children, what happens when grandma or even a nanny may not get that message and they think that what they're doing is they're sharing proud moments of their grandchildren's lives? How can you have those conversations so that everyone's on the same page about these social media boundaries?
Leah: I advise depersonalizing it and whether it's, "Hey, I just read this amazing new book called Sharenthood. You should hear what that crazy law professor thinks," or honestly in this day and age, just open up the newspaper or turn on the radio, you're guaranteed to hear a data privacy related story. We were just talking about the ring cameras that were hacked and just bring it up as a conversation point so it's not, "I don't like you're doing," it's, "Hey, I'm learning more about what's happening in the world. It's making me feel a little bit differently about the pictures that we all think of as being so cute. Can we just hit a hold on those?"
I recognize that it's uncomfortable. It's easier to have those conversations upfront. I actually do have conversations and always have with babysitters and nannies about we don't do social media with the kids. If you say it upfront when you're first meeting someone they tend to be fine with it. It does get harder down the road If it started you have to rein it in. I think understanding that it tends to come from a good and proud place but it does have to be discussed. Those of us who are increasingly having these conversations as much as we can do to just make them more normal.
So no one would think it was weird in this day and age if you dropped your kid off for a play date and said, "Heads up. They have a nut allergy." No one is going to judge you for that. We are nowhere close to being able to say, "Hey, heads up. We don't do sharenting." They're going to be like, "What?" I think we want to try to move in that direction, and again looking for a depersonalized way of having that conversation can make a huge difference.
Emily: What about schools, and camps, and other organizations or activities that our kids participate in? There's plenty of sharing and data tracking that's going on in these environments. What should we be looking out for there if we feel like our child's privacy isn't being protected?
I would say as a parent try to just start from a baseline understanding of whether it's school, or camp, or an afterschool program what screens your kids are seeing. Are they being given a tablet, or a Chromebook, or another type of device? Ask them what products they're interacting with, then ask the teacher or the coach or the counselor. Also ask, "What are you folks using in the back office? What's happening back there?"
The legal schemes are going to be different whether it is a public elementary, middle, and high school or a private summer camp, but in all places the best starting point is that direct conversation and so you're in information-gathering mode, not judgmental mode.
Emily: There was a recent study done by Microsoft that found that 42% of teens have a problem with their parents posting about them on social media. Can parents ask their kids' permission before posting?
Leah: That study is super interesting because it definitely shows that the kids coming of age today are privacy-protecting and savvy in a way that those of us, and I'll take myself and the tail end of Gen X and the ways that we might not be as parents. I do think as a matter of modeling good digital citizenship parents should ask and parents should let their kids know what they're doing. Do you have to give a kid a veto if it's the holiday picture that you're going to text to grandma? I don't think so.
Should you think about maybe giving your kid a veto if it is what you think is a cute picture at Disney World but you've got a middle schooler and they are really embarrassed of how they look in the Mickey Mouse ears? Yes, give them a veto. As you weigh the different values, yes, you may enjoy and derive value from the likes that come in or feeling connected to the people who are seeing the picture, but I would say in that type of scenario, your connection to your child is more important and you're modeling for them that we ask other people before we post pictures because kids, especially teenagers, can get into a heck of a lot of really serious trouble if they are taking pictures of their peers and posting them without permission or discussion so we need to set a good example.
Emily: It's just good social media etiquette actually. Whether it's a kid or another adult, I think it is common courtesy to ask, "Are you okay if I share this?" You're a mom, you're a lawyer and you just wrote a book about sharenting. Are you ultimately an optimist or a pessimist when it comes to our kids and their digital futures?
Leah: I am an optimist because so many of us are paying so much more attention to this. I don't think it's flipping a switch and that we're going to go from this Wild West mentality to one that appropriately balances innovation with privacy protection, but I am so heartened by the number of parents, teachers, grandparents, law makers, academics and our kids and teens themselves who are looking around and saying, hey, why do thousands of people I've never been met need to know when I was potty trained?
Or why do I need a device to tell me what my pet is doing at home? That's not sharenting to have one of those surveillance cameras on your pet that would be pet renting. Of course anytime you have a digital device in your home that's recording information we have to go back to assuming it's not necessarily going to stay private. I'm fundamentally optimistic.
Emily: Thank you so much for joining us today.
Leah: This has been wonderful. Thank you so much for this important conversation.
Outro: Thanks for listening to this episode of Equal Parts. See you next time.
Emily: Wait, before you go, I just want to tell you a little bit about Care@Work by Care.com. They work with some of the world's largest companies to offer family care benefits to their employees. If you're one of the lucky ones who already has care benefits at work, use them, if you don't, ask for them. It's a real lifesaver. To learn more visit care.com/careatwork. Again, that's care.com/careatwork.