The Good, Bad and Dangerous of Sharenting on Social Media
Sharenting, the trend of parents posting pics and videos of kids on social media, seems benign. But it's more dangerous than you think.
The Dangers of Sharenting Are Real. Here's How to Protect Kids.
People born in the 1990s grew up with the internet. Sort of. You shared a clunky box of a desktop computer with the rest of your family, and your first phone was a flip phone. When camera phones came out, the low-resolution images took forever to send. The photos from family road trips still had to be printed out to send to Grandma.
Over time, sharing our lives got easier and easier. They were uploaded to Facebook albums, then Instagram feeds. At first, they were selfies in the bathroom mirror. But by the time we became parents ourselves, we didn’t think twice about posting snapshots of our offspring.
Dubbed 'sharenting,' posting photos of our kids on social media feels safe.
When my daughter was born in 2014, I shared her newborn photos on Facebook for out-of-state friends and family to see, along with the 800+ virtual strangers I went to high school with. Strict privacy settings gave me a false sense of security.
It never occurred to me that, by posting the seemingly harmless photos, I became the first person to violate my child’s right to privacy and that my well-intended choice might put her future at risk in more ways than I ever imagined as I picked out a cute filter and hit the share button.
The “sharenting” trend is dangerous on every level. Almost all kids today have a digital footprint before they’re even born. It starts with a pregnancy announcement and a sweet pic, documenting their existence before ever giving them a name.
The vast majority of parents post photos of their kids.
Based on a survey conducted in 2021, about 75 percent of parents share photos or videos of their children on social media, and 80 percent of those who do use their kids’ real names. Another study from 2018 estimated a child today has an average of 1,300 photos of themselves posted online by their 13th birthday. The majority of them have no say in this.
Wanting to share photos with friends and family is understandable, but oversharing can impact a child’s safety, future job prospects and mental health. One study estimates that two-thirds of identity theft cases will be from sharenting by 2030.
We’re not going to sugarcoat it. Posting your kids on social media is more harmful than you think. But knowing the line is key, and there are safer ways to share than others.
Posting your kid on social media could harm them emotionally and socially.
Posting a cute pic of your child’s first lost tooth, first day of kindergarten or your genius family Halloween costume doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. Every pic and post with their name in it, however, contributes to a digital footprint that they have little control over.
The most obvious impact is a social one. No one asks a toddler if they want their silly dance shared on Instagram. Toddlers don’t care. But the post doesn’t disappear when that toddler becomes a tween. Posting photos of a child before they’re old enough to have an opinion on the matter becomes a breach of trust.
Essentially, it undermines their sense of control over their online identity and right to privacy before they’re old enough to care.
It's possible to adversely impact a child's future without intending to.
Even parents who are careful not to post anything overtly embarrassing or shameful aren't off the hook. If you post your kid's photo alongside personal or political opinions they grow to disagree with, it undermines their individuality. If they happen to go into politics, it’s even worse. They'll have some explaining to do when someone digs up childhood photos of them carrying 2008 election signs if they end up running for the other party.
Your posts could even impact their future careers. Posting a complaint about their teenage behavior might follow them, shaping how potential employers view them. Once photos are online, anyone can use them. Strangers can reshare their photos or put them on any type of website they want. These are worst-case scenarios, but worst-case scenarios can happen to anyone if you’re not careful.
Social posts can also become fuel for cyberbullying. Kids can be cruel, especially when they can post damaging comments from behind the safety of an online pseudonym. If parents post things that are even mildly embarrassing, from a dorky outfit to a cringeworthy story, kids are the ones who have to deal with the backlash at school.
It also sends a concerning message: You don’t have a say over your own image, especially online. It’s a scary message, and one that’s becoming more real with every passing day.
The risk of losing your identity online is real. The other risks are even scarier.
Sharenting, even in moderation, puts kids at risk for “digital kidnapping,” a form of identity theft. Something as benign as sharing a birth announcement can make sensitive information, like your child’s real birthdate and name, public. In some cases, identity thieves manage to get ahold of the child’s Social Security number and their real name and location. In other cases, they create a false identity, mixing the child’s real information with an unrelated address and date of birth.
From there, they can open credit accounts under the child’s name, wrecking their credit before they’re old enough to even swipe a card. Often, the stolen identity isn’t discovered by parents or underage identity-theft victims until the child first applies to a job or for a student loan. A false trail of poor credit history is shockingly hard to erase, potentially impacting their ability to lease a first apartment or qualify for school grants.
Identity theft of kids is much more common than you might think. Over 1 million children had their identities stolen in 2017, with losses totaling $2.6 billion. About a quarter of that was paid by families out of pocket. It’s a good practice to check with the Social Security Administration annually to confirm that your child’s Social Security number isn’t being used by anyone else. You can also check your child’s credit report for free by contacting the three credit bureaus:
- Equifax: 1-800-525-6285
- Experian: 1-888-397-3742
- TransUnion: 1-800-680-7289
You can also sign up for fraud alerts or even place a security freeze on your child’s credit report, essentially blocking new accounts from being fraudulently opened in their name.
Companies also track your child’s interests before they even have devices of their own.
It feels like you barely have to think about a product before ads start popping up for the exact same item on Instagram. Data is acquired from every one of your posts to create a profile of your child’s interests as well.
Kyle Taylor, author of "The Little Black Book of Social Media" as well as a contibutor to Byline Times, brings up a deeply unsettling point. “Big tech companies are aware of the harm they cause to the mental health of kids and teens but knowingly carry on running their platforms despite this fact. The reality is, and this is an important thing to always remember, they’re just big companies trying to make as much money as possible no matter the impact. This is particularly true of the platforms that are financially free. They may appear free, but Instagram, TikTok and Facebook’s real customers are the companies paying for the carefully curated ads that show up on your feed. A good rule of thumb is to remember that if you aren’t paying for the product, then you probably are the product.”
Apps can even track your child’s location if they bring their phone or iPad with them to school. If leaked, this data can fall into the wrong hands to devastating effects.
Only one law regulates what data websites can collect from kids.
A single law, first introduced in 1998, regulates what data websites can collect from kids, but the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, COPPA, is woefully outdated. It was first introduced before social media and smartphones were even a thing. The law provides some limitations to what data can be collected from kids under 13, but all other teens are treated like adults in terms of data collection online.
The internet has changed dramatically since 1998, but the laws haven’t changed much at all. In March 2023, Utah became the first state to limit how children can use social media, requiring parental consent before they can sign up for popular sites like Instagram and TikTok. The new law also prohibits kids from using social media late at night and aims to prevent sites from reeling in youngsters with psychologically addictive features.
Still, the law only applies in a single state, and no new laws address data privacy. Until they do, keeping our children’s data safe is up to us — even though most of us have a hazy understanding of how to keep our own data secure. Studies are evolving to help lead policymakers in the right direction, but we have a long way to go.
Social media isn’t all bad, and some experts believe it’s worth the risk.
Of course, we can’t forget the fact that engaging in an online community through social media has compelling benefits. Teens are able to connect with their peers and family members with ease, allowing them to maintain a social life and find academic support whenever they need it. Dr. Shairi Turner, chief health officer at Crisis Text Line, points out that social media use is beneficial when introduced gradually and with parental guidance.
“While there are negative effects associated with social media, it can also be a powerful tool for creating positive, meaningful connections," Turner tells FamilyMinded. "When it comes to kids and social media, it’s important for parents to meet their children where they are and, if they are exploring social media, teach them to do so in positive ways.”
Avoiding social media exposure altogether is both unrealistic and potentially harmful, according to Narges Dillon, a licensed marriage and family therapist and the executive director of Crisis Support Services of Alameda County. “A big misstep on parts of parents is vilifying social media and, therefore, closing the door to ongoing conversations with their kids and teens about their experiences on various platforms,” Dillon says. “Seeing social media as a space where relationships occur can help parents have conversations that encourage their kids to speak up if someone makes them feel uncomfortable on social media. I often encounter parents who say, ‘That’s not real; it's just on social media,’ and that is very incongruent with the experience young people have. Social media is a very real part of their relationships with their peers and with their own identities.”
Now more than ever, community building starts with connection, and social media enables our youth to find a sense of community that may be lacking in their day-to-day life. “The internet includes safe spaces for various identities and interests and can, therefore, become a safe haven for youth who have marginalized identities or don't feel a sense of belonging with peers in person," Dillon explains. "A prime example of this is youth questioning their sexuality or gender orientation. Because of this, I often discourage parents from having ‘taking away the phone’ be their primary consequence for their children and teens. There could be a risk of pushing the young person into harmful isolation by removing their connection from those online spaces.”
The main problem? Modern parents are learning as they go.
We’re still learning how to parent in an era with constantly evolving technology — much of which our children are privy to before we are. Dillon recommends that parents talk about their child’s relationship with technology in a relational way.
“The same way we might talk about healthy friendships in person, we should also talk about healthy ways of engaging online. Additionally, going one step further and discussing information sharing and helping them understand the ramifications of sharing personal details," Dillon says. "It's a fine balance of sharing information but not being alarmist … it's also important to note that this is not one conversation. This is a conversation that starts as soon as our kids gain access to the internet and should continue into young adulthood as each stage brings with it opportunities for deepening the conversation.”
The same principles apply to our own social posts involving our kids.
Safety risks aside, the line between posting in a healthy way and engaging in harmful sharenting comes down to respect, consideration and communication. Take Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, mom of two, Juliet Bahiyyih Martinez. She has two children, a teen and a young adult with a hearing impairment and autism. She took her children’s lead to determine what was OK to share.
“I used to post a lot about my kids on Facebook (friends only), but as my older kid entered adolescence and came out to me, I felt like I needed to be more careful about their privacy," Martinez tells FamilyMinded. "My younger kid is naturally quite private, so now I almost never post their photos or much about either of them. Needless to say, I'm crazy about my kids and insanely proud of them, but I guess that doesn't really equate to posting about them on social media.”
In fact, sharenting isn’t really about our kids at all. It’s about us. “Sharenting is really about our own need to be seen in a certain light by our networks," Dillon points out. "I might post pictures of my family on the beach five minutes after answering work emails on my phone. In that instance, it's my guilt about not being present that’s driving that action. I use myself as an example because we all do this, but if we can have some awareness around what’s driving it, it can help us be more mindful.”
Even with mindful posting practices, parents should ask their kids for permission to post.
Author Kyle Taylor poses an excellent question for parents to consider. “How old does someone have to be to fully understand the implications of giving up their privacy and all future anonymity? Even if they do consent, it’s best to limit the number of services they are shared on and keep privacy settings as high as possible in case they change their mind later.”
Dillon’s rule of thumb is similar, logical and easy to follow, even when it applies to younger children. “If a child is old enough to have an online presence themself, it’s definitely important to ask their permission to post anything or images about them. For kids younger than that, it’s a gray area. Kids don’t fully understand the meaning of having their picture posted online, so their consent doesn't feel fully informed.
"An in-between step can be making sure it's a picture they like. ‘Is this a picture you would be OK with me sharing with our friends and family?’ can be a question to give the child a sense of autonomy and begin to teach them to think about what they post about themselves. Elementary school children are usually old enough to know whether they like a picture of themself or whether they see it as embarrassing.”
Becoming a mommy vlogger is a slippery slope to exploitation.
Most parents post a handful of pics to commemorate special moments and holidays. Some, however, have discovered family vlogs as a hobby — or even as a full-time career. Get enough followers on YouTube, Instagram and TikTok, and funny videos of your toddler’s antics can be monetized. Unfortunately, what starts out as a fun family activity can become exploitative when children are turned into influencers without their consent.
For one, sharing intimate moments of their lives can lead to resentment and embarrassment later on. Even wholesome, educational parenting content can be a source of embarrassment when it involves intimate emotional moments between parents and their kids. Once a child-centered social media account goes viral, few parenting influencers are willing to give it up, even if their kids no longer wish to participate.
Several former child influencers have shared the harmful effects of being raised as a YouTube star. There are currently no laws protecting children who are posted online as part of vlogs, unlike the laws that protect child actors. While advocacy organizations are working to spread awareness and pass new bills to protect young social media stars, until that happens, involving kids in family social media accounts is up to the parents' discretion.
Some people make a compelling case for family vlogging.
Still, there’s a lot to like about parents on social media. I’m guilty of following more than one parenting influencer on TikTok and Instagram. What can I say? Gentle parenting tips are helpful, and creative bento-box lunch ideas from one mom’s viral TikTok account have made my 8-year-old’s day.
Social media accounts aren’t all bad. Some family vloggers use them as a way to bond and spend time together. Just as not all child actors are negatively impacted by the experience, it’s possible to involve children in social media accounts in a healthy way. Kids should be allowed to choose whether or not to participate. As long as their wishes are respected, and the content is appropriate and respectful, what’s the harm?
Shannon Breascher Shea, a mom who blogs on environmentally sustainable family living, points out that it’s possible to include your kids in your work without invading their privacy. “I only share public photos of my kids from the back or with their faces significantly obscured," Shea tells FamilyMinded. "I share some full photos of them on my private Facebook profile but not very often.”
Amanda Green, a mom of two young children, follows a similar protocol across all social channels. “I share pictures of my kids on Facebook, but I also keep my Facebook page limited to family and friends," Green says. "I share because I've always documented my life, and [my kids] are a big part of it. I will quit sharing if they ever ask me to. I do have a few public Instagram and TikTok pages as well. I do not share any images of my kid's faces or other identifying features on those. My Instagram is about hiking and adventure, so I usually share pictures of them walking ahead of me on a trail, the back of their heads or occasionally a landscape shot where you can see their face if they zoom in, but they are not the subject of the image.”
Blurring photos is a good move, but it's not a foolproof preventative measure.
Keeping a child's face out of any posted photos is an option worth consideration for any parents who plan on posting family updates regularly, even if they have no interest in becoming an influencer. Even then, nothing is foolproof. Bobbi Dempsey, a mother, journalist and author, does her best to keep her kids’ faces off the web, but she remains concerned. “I'm strongly on the 'no share' side. Most of my Facebook friends/contacts probably couldn't even tell you how many kids I have or any of their names. My Facebook profile is locked down pretty tight, but I know that nothing you post or share anywhere online is ever truly private, regardless of your settings.”
Most of us are lucky enough never to witness worst-case scenarios online, but they do happen. Case in point: the nightmarish experience of parent Rachel Garlinghouse. The mother of four adopted Black children has nearly 20,000 followers on Instagram, where she shares adoption and parenting tips, encourages racial equality and advocates for breast cancer awareness.
Most of the photos she posts with her children have their faces blurred, but even that wasn’t enough. Garlinghouse shares, “We had a family photo stolen and used in a racist video on YouTube. I honestly don’t know how the person got the photo. My public social media all conceal my kids’ eyes.”
The moral of this story is clear: Whatever illusion of safety we have about photos of our kids online is blissfully naive, and the risks aren’t going away anytime soon. In fact, the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better.
AI adds a new layer of potential nightmares to the mix.
Even when parents themselves post their children’s photos responsibly, once it’s on the internet, what happens to their images is out of their control. Once you post a photo to Instagram, the site can legally use your content royalty-free. Instagram doesn’t hold ownership of user content, but it reserves the right to use it.
That’s not the scariest part, though. Advances in artificial intelligence have made it possible for programs to use a single image of a person to fabricate videos of the person doing just about anything. As fun as it is to watch yourself jump like a pro snowboarder, there are far more sinister applications of this poorly regulated new tech. If someone has access to a photo of your child, they can use it to create inappropriate content at the push of a button. The implications are bone-chilling, and the risks will likely increase until legislation catches up with new technology.
There are ways to post on social media with less risk.
Swearing off posting family photos on social media altogether may seem extreme, and there are ways to reduce the risk of your content being misused. To start, think before sharing. No embarrassing photos or nudes, no matter how cute that innocent bathtime snapshot may be. Avoid posting photos of activities that may seem risky or controversial, too.
Shaming kids on social media as a parenting tactic is even worse. Aside from being psychologically harmful, their future employers might come across a post of your teenager getting publicly shamed for missing curfew. Not the best look.
Additionally, before you post a photo or video, ask your child if it’s OK. In doing so, you send an important message: Their online image is theirs to control. If mom and dad are the first to take away that agency, why would they expect anyone else to respect it?
From a legal standpoint, there’s no 100 percent safe way to post.
Taylor points out that the term "sharenting" should really include any parental posts in which their child can be identified, not only posts by so-called mommy influencers. “Sharenting — posting a picture of a child where their entire face is visible and thus identifiable — is a really hot topic at the moment. Unlike other decisions parents make for their children, this one isn’t reversible and impacts the rest of their lives. I would say that any sharenting on a public social media platform is potentially harmful. Thankfully, there are lots of great alternatives like FamilyAlbum and 23Snaps that offer privacy and community without exposing kids to the wider social media world.”
To share photos with friends and family with minimal risk, parents can use other mediums outside of social media. It may be slightly less convenient than posting publicly, but it’s much more convenient than trying to reclaim your child’s stolen identity.
However, swearing off social media posts altogether isn’t realistic for most of us. If you, like myself and most parents, still plan on sharing the occasional family update or vacation pic, accept that eliminating risk is impossible. Instead, focus on minimizing the risks by staying informed about online safety best practices as they evolve.
Always use the strictest privacy settings on each site you use, and actually read through the terms and conditions, down to the fine print, before posting. Nearly half of parents have only reviewed privacy settings once or twice, and it’s not enough. Some sites take ownership of all photos posted, so make sure you know what you’re consenting to.
When you do share a photo, don’t include any personal information. Avoid geotagging (including the location where a photo was taken) because hackers can use it to track down your child’s school or home address. Also, avoid using your child’s full name, birthdate and any other info that could be misused.
Not sure if a photo is OK or if it veers into sharenting territory? Err on the side of caution, and save the funny snapshots for the family scrapbook.
Your kids will thank you for it.