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Social media and advanced mobile devices have become extensions of ourselves, and for minors, this digital identity has profound consequences.
Legal frameworks to protect children’s privacy
ll major regulations and international texts created to protect children focus on their privacy. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) states that “children deserve specific protection of their personal data”. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, in Article 16, declares that “no child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with their privacy”. The US law known as COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act) establishes strict parameters for handling minors’ information and informing adults about its storage and scope.
Adult-controlled digital identities
The digital phenomenon known as ‘sharenting,’ derived from the combination of the words “share” and “parenting,” revolves around parents excessively sharing information about their children on social media and other online platforms. The lack of discretion leads to the publication of detailed accounts of children’s lives, exposing sensitive moments that can be shared without control and remain online indefinitely, making the long-term impact difficult to measure.
When we talk about “information,” we are also referring to specific personal data such as full names, places of residence, schools, and daily activities. The dissemination of this information can make children more vulnerable to harassment, digital identity theft, or worse, to individuals with violent intentions.
The impact on the self-esteem and reputation of minors is another significant consequence to consider. Online posts can influence their self-concept and identity development. As children grow, they may feel uncomfortable or embarrassed by the overexposure of their personal lives. There could also be negative effects if they feel that their image or achievements are being used for approval, validation, or commercial purposes.
As children grow and become more aware of the extent to which their parents or guardians share their lives, they may feel a sense of lack of control, invasion of privacy, and a lack of autonomy over their own image and narrative. All these images, texts, and materials, from mundane moments to more significant ones related to education or health, will be challenging to manage or remove in the long run, solidifying a permanent digital footprint and undermining the affected individuals’ public image.
Sharenting: motivations and consequences
A 2022 study titled “From the Cradle to the Web: The Growth of Sharenting”1 analyzes nearly 300 publications on this topic, focusing on two aspects. First, it examines how children’s perspective changes as they reach adolescence regarding the posts their parents have made, experiencing contradictions between the image they try to build online and these posts, which can lead to uncomfortable or dangerous situations, especially when they use the internet as a platform to construct their identity. They may even be “influenced by stereotypes and identities created by their parents instead of having the freedom to express themselves”. Second, the study explores the mechanisms that lead parents to intervene in their children’s life stories in this way, ranging from a sense of connection and community, initially harmless, to a need for validation and recognition that reaffirm their role as caregivers.
Another recent report2 reveals that motivations for this practice are “diverse” and include “collecting memories, staying connected with relatives and friends, obtaining affirmation and support, exchanging parenting advice, and managing the impression of being good parents”. Importantly, it also analyzes how parental mediation in children’s internet usage influences the phenomenon of sharenting. Whether parents restrict their children’s internet use or encourage them to explore the world through it, sharenting occurs to a lesser extent or not at all compared to those who apply nonrestrictive or permissive strategies.
In general, the link between commercial images and minors generates rejection. This is paradoxical in times when sharenting has reached the next level, with parents sharing their children’s lives to promote brands and gain economic benefits. This exposure relies on loyal followers who can transform information into profits.
We must question ourselves if the child’s best interests prevail when we wish to share moments of a minor’s life on social media. Permission should always be sought, and we should reflect on the boundaries that separate seemingly innocuous everyday acts from child exploitation.
Tips for protecting their digital self
Pantallas Amigas (Friendly Screens in Spanish), an association working for the “promotion of responsible digital citizenship in childhood and adolescence”, provides a series of basic tips to achieve a balance between the benefits of the internet and the protection of minors. These include uploading content to adult accounts rather than creating separate accounts for children, considering their opinions and not posting anything against their will, safeguarding their image by always sharing dressed pictures, reading and understanding the privacy policies of each social media platform, activating search engine alerts to monitor information about minors that may escape our control, and not sharing real-time locations.
In a society that progresses faster than we can control it, it is crucial for parents to carefully consider the long-term effects of sharenting and make informed decisions about what they share online about their children, respecting their privacy and protecting their safety. Minors do not belong to us; they are not projects; they are complete individuals who need the protection of adults. To ensure they develop a healthy and responsible identity, they must have the experience and judgment of adults who prioritize their interests over short-term rewards that social media may provide.
1 From the Cradle to the Web: The Growth of Sharenting | Ilaria Cataldo, An An Lieu, Alessandro Carollo , Marc H. Bornstein , Giulio Gabrieli , Albert Lee, Gianluca Esposito. April 7th, 2022.
2The Privacy Paradox by Proxy: Considering Predictors of Sharenting | Niamh Ní Bhroin, Thuy Dinh, Kira Thiel, Claudia Lampert, Elisabeth Staksrud, Kjartan Ólafsson. March 29th, 2022.