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Are parents infringing on children’s boundaries by over ‘sharenting’?

Kellie and Hermione aren’t the only mother-daughter duo arguing over “sharenting”. As Facebook turns 15 this year, a whole generation now in their teens are realising that their parents have gone online to document their first steps, first days at school, and so on. In the UK, parents have posted, on average, nearly 1500 photos of their child by their fifth birthday, according to a study by internet domain manager Nominet.

Meanwhile, an American study published in Children and Youth Services Review found that the majority of 12- to 14-year-olds wished their parents asked their permission before posting about them.

I didn’t really know she was posting those photos before I had Facebook. Then I realised my entire life is on there, involuntarily.

Hermione, 18

A recent global survey also found that Generation Z are far more reluctant to share life updates than older generations – just 34 per cent would go online to post about their proudest moments, compared with 53 per cent of Millennials.

In her new book, Sharenthood: Why We Should Think Before We Talk About Our Kids Online, law professor Leah Plunkett argues that children’s data privacy is being compromised, and that it’s no wonder teens are demanding “room to mess up”.

Gwyneth Paltrow was famously called out by her daughter Apple, then 14, after posting a skiing selfie of the pair of them on Instagram earlier this year. “Mom, we have discussed this,” Apple commented. “You may not post anything without my consent.”

“It’s not surprising for daughters like Apple to act that way,” says clinical psychologist Janice Hiller. “When they get to their early teens, they have a massive change with hormones, a sense of self-awareness and wanting to form their own identity. If their mothers are constantly posting, it’s robbing those girls of the opportunity to work out how to express themselves.”

Like Gwyneth, Kellie couldn’t understand why Hermione was protesting. “I was like, don’t be
silly,” she admits. “I was slightly dismissive because, to me, what I was doing was harmless. But she started to get really angry.”

Things came to a head when Hermione was 15 and Kellie posted a particular photograph. “Hermione thought it was an unflattering angle and said, ‘No, I don’t want you to. It’s disrespectful. I wouldn’t do it to you, Mum. So don’t do it to me.’ I was shocked that she felt so strongly. And I felt bad for ignoring her feelings about it for so long.”

After a proper discussion, Kellie came to understand her daughter’s point of view. “She told me it’s all about curating her image online. She wants control over how she’s seen, and who sees it, so as much as I just want to post cute photos of her, I know I have to respect that boundary.”

Today Hermione’s Instagram profile is full of black-and-white shots of her friends (“We look better that way than in colour”), while her Facebook wall contains photos that her mum has tagged her in.

She plans to delete her Facebook account or create a second one before starting university so that her new friends won’t be able to see her life history online.

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“I’ve had quite a few arguments with my mum about all this,” she says. “We have an agreement now that she has to check first, and accept that the answer is probably going to be a no.”

Part of the problem is that each generation has different ideas of how to present themselves online. While teenagers today grew up in an age of filters and airbrushing, their parents are often stuck in the “unvarnished family album” mentality.

Maja Sonne Damkjær, professor of media studies at Aarhus University in Denmark, who researches sharenting, says that it is a parent’s responsibility to respect their child and their boundaries, and set a good example by listening. Yet she also acknowledges the pressure modern parents come under, both from family members asking them to regularly post on social media, as well as the mechanisms employed by social media to encourage people to constantly share.

“It’s complicated,” she concedes. “And there will always be parents who take it to extremes. But when we dig deep, parents can all remember what it’s like to be a child and find thingsembarrassing. If it’s small children, are you laughing at them, or sharing something a child would consider
a fun situation later on?”

Hiller goes further, warning that if a parent’s sense of pride is too tied up with posting online, they should take stock of their social-media habits.

“If they’re compulsively drawn to posting things, it can signal an unhealthy relationship with social media,” she says. “They might have a competitiveness within their peer group about posting, for example. But when that becomes more important than respecting their kids’ wishes, it’s the wrong priority. They’re putting their own needs over their child’s developmental needs.”

For Julia Champion, 50, who lives with her husband and two daughters, this is a source of conflict with the elder of her two daughters, Rosie, 13. “She’s always on Instagram posting photos of herself with [filters of] bunny ears and eyelashes. But when I try to post photos of her, she says I’m not allowed because it’s embarrassing.”

A few months ago Rosie objected to a particular photograph of her, posted online by her mother, carrying the caption: “Exciting times for Rosie; it’s her first proper date.” Julia watched as the “likes” and “good luck” comments flowed in – then Rosie asked her to remove the picture.

“She said it was embarrassing,” says Julia. “So I eventually I did delete it. But later on, once she’d gone, I put it up again. It was just so sweet, and all so harmless; it’s not like I’m posting naked photos of her online. I’d never post about her getting her period or anything like that. This is just a bit of fun.”

However, a shocked Hiller says, “It’s absolutely not okay for a parent to expose their children’s lives. Teens need their privacy and a sense of safety so they can develop their confidence. Mothers who regularly post photos of their children online are over-identifying with their experiences. They need to recognise that it can be harmful and back off.”

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Hiller urges all mothers and daughters to have honest conversations about boundaries. “The main thing is for parents to not create discomfort for teens. If they are constantly overexposed it could one day lead to mental-health repercussions, like anxiety or issues with self-esteem.”

For Kellie and Hermione, the conversation continues. “I’ve said to her, ‘You can take a photo of me
and send it to Granddad but do you have to put it on Facebook?’ ” says Hermione. And Kellie is more accepting of her children’s concerns. “If we take a family photo, I have to check with every one of them if it’s okay to post,” she sighs. “It’s exasperating, but I understand.”

Still, Kellie treasures those moments that Hermione allows her to share, such as a snap of her in her prom dress: “It’s still one of my most-liked photos.” And then there was the photo of the pair of them laughing on Hermione’s 18th birthday.

“I’m lucky,” says Kellie, smiling. “She does still let me have my proud mum moments. But I know I also have to learn to appreciate the pride without the likes.”

How to find the balance between showing off and oversharing

By Maja Sonne Damkjær, digital parenting expert

-Ask your child’s permission before sharing photos of them, and establish guidelines as soon as they’re old enough.

-Think about their future self. Will they be okay with that photo five or 10 years from now? If it’s embarrassing or potentially harmful (if it shows nudity, for instance), steer clear.

-Talk to your partner and fellow guardians about how you want to “sharent”. Which platforms will you all use and how frequently will you post?

-Stick to neutral photos such as your child posing with a birthday cake. Don’t post a funny picture unless your child is in on the joke. And beware: school uniforms can be a security risk.

-If your child has something to celebrate, ask them whether they’d prefer to break the news themselves before you take to social media.

-Remember that you can talk about how proud you are of your child and their great exam results or achievements without accompanying it with a photo.

-Find alternative ways to channel your good news, whether a phone call to family and friends or an online photo album like Apple’s Shared Albums that goes to a closed group only.

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale November 3.

Stella Magazine, The Sunday Telegraph (UK)

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