Are you accidentally risking your child’s safety by sharenting?
“I wanted to share experiences and learnings as a new mom. I’ve never thought about identity theft.”
At a certain age, your friend circle becomes busy fulfilling their biological destinies. You’ll see your social media feed transition from puppies tripping over their own paws, to crawling babies clutching balloons. It’s a jarring shift, and it comes with certain expectations. After all, you have to learn that child’s name (is it Kian or Keyan?) and wish him on his birthday. You’re technically following little Kihaan, even if you’ve never met him.
The etiquette of social media can get thorny, now that parents often use it as a modern update on the photo album. While a physical photograph is viewed only by the loved ones you choose, content on the internet is open to all. The act of “sharenting” — when parents share photos and information about their kids online — has real-world safety implications.
A recent study by Barclays suggests that by 2030, nearly two-thirds of identity fraud affecting today’s children will be the result of sharenting. While cybersecurity expert Vishal Pandey believes that’s a high estimate as there are easier and more lucrative sources of sensitive data, he cautions that the risk of sharing children’s data online should not be downplayed. “Just the simple act of opening a website leaves a large footprint, and they (parents) are putting tremendous amounts of data back into the machine daily.”
Arshiya Singh, who runs the popular parenting page Raising Nemo on Instagram, has been posting pictures of her toddler son since he was six months old. When he started eating solid foods, Singh noticed there weren’t many resources available to Indian parents on weaning, so she decided to start her own page (here’s how to get your fussy eater to try vegetables).
“I wanted to share experiences and learnings as a new mom. I’ve never thought about identity theft,” she says when asked about sharenting. That doesn’t mean Singh and other parents like her are lax about the safety of their kids.
Kanika Grover is a Tweak reader based in Delhi and mom to a 12-year-old boy. She was always reluctant to post pictures of him on social media as a baby, or even share them with relatives apart from her parents and in-laws. “In Indian families, we say ‘nazar lag jati’.” Whether you believe in ‘buri nazar’ (evil eyes) or not, there are prying eyes online that are not in a parent’s control.
As Dr Swati Popat, sociologist and educationist points out, what goes on social media stays there forever. “I’ve seen posts with naked pictures, or the likes and dislikes of children. You are making your child an easy victim for paedophiles, kidnappers,” she warns.
Apart from these security concerns, there’s the emotional and mental considerations that sharenting can have on your kids, especially when they’re too young to give consent. We all know the embarrassment of parents showing visitors our baby pictures in the family album. How would we feel if they’d instead posted them on a neighbourhood hoarding for everyone to see?
Singh avoids posting potentially humiliating content about her son, but as she frankly admits, she can only hope she gets it right. Singh makes it a point to show difficult moments in an effort to help other parents feel less alone, and while those might be personal to her son, she hopes he will understand her good intentions when he grows up.
There’s no blueprint for modern parents on establishing boundaries around sharenting, and while most of them are conscious of risks — reading news items about kidnappings, or seeing cyberbullying among schoolkids — the urge to share their child’s milestones is natural.
“The most secure path for them would be to disconnect from the Internet and go back to doing everything manually – but that’s not realistic. Neither is expecting society today to give up on interacting online with their information and social posts,” says Pandey.
Popat agrees that, particularly as they grow older, you can’t force your kids to stay offline. Social media is a growing part of their world and ours, and ignoring it won’t make the problems go away. Instead, children need to learn to engage with social media in a safe and healthy manner, and that’s where parents are instrumental (here are 7 useful tips you can learn from Instagram reels).
How to mitigate the risks of sharenting
Don’t give away identifying details
When actor-producer Mindy Kaling posts pictures of her two kids, we always see them from the back or with their faces covered. According to Popat, this is the kind of celebrity role model parents should emulate.
Singh’s son has just started preschool, but she’s careful not to put up posts of him in uniform and asks his school to avoid it too. Anything that’s part of his daily routine, Singh is reluctant to post online, feeling it would make him vulnerable to potential criminals. Similarly, Grover’s son doesn’t have a social media account, so she requests other parents to wait for a few hours before sharing pictures of any social event he attends.
For those guilty of sharenting, Pandey says that posting locations and geo-tagging allow bad actors to see where your child is at a given time, and which places they frequent. Limit the discussion of upcoming travel plans, your child’s schedule on social media, and their likes and dislikes. “I’ve run into a situation where several children’s location data was compromised from a website, where it was being shared in conversation and in posts — and was then used to extort certain subscribers of that service,” says Pandey. The same goes for medical or financial information.
Keep track of who’s watching
Popat recommends starting a private Facebook or WhatsApp group for close family and friends if you want to share your child’s pictures. While privacy online is never a guarantee, it can help keep personal moments inside your trusted inner circle. A private Instagram page is an option as well.
Singh keeps her page open, but makes it a point to check on new followers. Grover posts pictures of her son to WhatsApp groups using a feature where they disappear after some time. For Gayatri Rao, a Bengaluru-based management consultant with a 15-year-old daughter, it’s about making sure her child can control her own following. “Only interact with people you know personally. Be socially connected to them, not to random strangers,” advises Rao.
Being vigilant isn’t just about which individuals can see your child’s data. “Most websites today embed cookies and trackers in your system by default – to track your preferences and browsing habits, which most of these services then resell to third, fourth, fifth parties,” explains Pandey. Learning how to restrict privacy settings and using parental controls can prevent an information free-for-all that leaves your child open to fraud, and ads that target their behaviour. (Check out Twinkle Khanna’s tips to keep your child safe online.)
Respect your child’s right to privacy
Popat advocates a respectful approach, where you ask your child before sharing, assuming they’re old enough to give an opinion. For younger kids, it’s important not to force them in front of the camera, as this attitude can give them the wrong idea about setting boundaries on social media.
“My daughter just entered college. If I were posting from her nursery days, would she like it?” asks Rao. As Popat says, you’re opening your child up to public opinion, so exercise restraint. Her motto is, let the finger linger before posting something.
On the other hand, spying and over-monitoring isn’t the best way to ensure your child’s safety. Popat once had a mother proudly confess that she made a fake Facebook profile of a girl the same age as her son and befriended him. The son opened up to the fake profile and the mother was happy to be in the loop.
Popat explained that if the son were to find out, he would lose trust in the most important relationship in life and find it hard to trust again. What’s more, the mother had inadvertently taught him to confide in a stranger online. While apps that allow you to monitor what your child is doing are useful, they should never be used deceitfully.
For Grover, after monitoring through a family safety app for a short period of time, she realised her son was not looking at inappropriate content and stopped checking. She still has access to her son’s passwords and he’s aware of that. “After a point you have to trust them. If you’re monitoring all the time, that’s not right,” she says.
Cultivate an open and honest relationship
When Grover’s son asked about opening a social media account, she told him that she would have to falsify his age. “I said, I’m not comfortable putting your wrong date of birth so do you want me to do it?” Given the choice, her son didn’t want to be involved in breaking the rules. Rao’s daughter, too, has chosen not to have her own social media accounts until she’s 18. Instead, her friends add Rao and ask her to view their reels and posts through her mother’s account.
Rao recalls that in her youth, mentioning boys wasn’t allowed in her household. Now, her daughter openly discusses the ins and outs of relationship labels and what’s going on with her classmates. Grover’s son recently confided in her that a girl asked him out. “I’m not sure I’ll be able to control anything. I only wish that I continue to have this relationship where I’m able to speak with him,” she says.
She also makes it a point to explain any rules and restrictions thoroughly. Rather than fear-mongering or being dictatorial, Grover will share articles on cybercrime and give him the logic behind a decision. They have a healthy discussion about decisions, their pros and cons. “Even if I’m not around, he acts responsible,” she says.
What if your own child is the cyber-bully or troll, the one who makes the digital space unsafe for others? With a teenager in the house, Rao is aware of the possibility. She advocates for more openness, as punishment will only drive kids into hiding. “In this dark world of the internet, it’s not easy to find out what they’re up to unless they tell us.” When young people are getting radicalised online at alarming rates, it’s more important than ever that kids have another place to turn.
Remember that you’re a role model
Both Grover and Rao feel lucky that their kids are not as interested in social media as their peers. More than good fortune, Popat believes that parents need to set the right example. “When you’re on social media and your kids are with you, mutter to them. For example, ‘this photo is so nice but I won’t put it up, it’s too personal.’” This sets kids up to become sensible social media users themselves. After all, teens don’t become teens overnight. There’s a period when they look up to you as the main authority and parents have to make the most of that time. Eventually, kids are more influenced by their peer group than their parents, so you want to send them into that phase with a navigational framework (how do we stay sane in a world controlled by technology?).
Rao’s daughter still communicates with her friends via landline, yet she has few restrictions on being allowed to go out in mixed groups and socialise however she wants. When Grover’s son became glued to screens during the lockdown, she started going with him on bike rides.
Popat recommends setting up rules of engagement for social media, for both yourself and your child — what they can and can’t do, what they should ask you before doing. If you don’t want your child mindlessly scrolling through Twitter for an hour, they shouldn’t see you doing it either. “Would you want your teen son to post a photo of his cheeks saying he has a rash? You’d tell him to go to a doctor. But when he was a baby, you did the same thing,” she says.
Seek help when it gets beyond you
“You can’t expect kids to keep up with their peers, with society, and the world as a whole without being on the channels that they are on,” says Pandey. Teenagers are more tech-savvy than their parents, and chances are if your child really wants to do something without your permission or knowledge, they’ll find a way. Nor are they necessarily wrong in wanting to engage with social media more deeply than you would like.
“I’m okay even if my daughter wants to have a career in this field,” says Rao. “I know digital is the future. I would encourage her to study it.” Seeking out a career in social media is feasible, and should be treated as legitimate. But wanting to be the next big influencer shouldn’t come at the expense of a child’s mental wellness.
“At this age you can’t differentiate between fake and real. Sometimes adults fail. When you see a couple on social media, is the picture always rosy? No one puts a picture of the breakup,” says Rao. There’s peer pressure on her introverted daughter to be more outgoing on social media, even if that’s not authentic to her personality. Seeing this curated highlight reel as reality can have a serious impact on kids’ mental health, and make them feel like failures for not meeting an impossible standard. Parents can encourage their kids to step outside the social media bubble, but they need to accept their own limitations.
Pandey says that as much as you should try and reinforce good behaviour, it’s just as important to prepare for when something goes wrong. Those are the red-light moments when parents need to stop observing their child and step in to help. Having strong emotional and mental coping mechanisms can prevent kids from falling prey to social media pitfalls.
For Popat, the focus on external voices can muffle the child’s inner voice of happiness and mindfulness, tying their self-validation to likes and comments. When kids are finding themselves in these vulnerable teen years, they create a false identity based on what others think of them. “If it’s turned into wanting to show rather than living in the moment, you need to re-evaluate why you’re doing it,” says Singh.
A child who can’t accept who they are will see their social development suffer as they venture out into the real world. They became less capable of making decisions that serve them, rather than the people around them. Parents aren’t experts, and Popat says that psychologists and educators must support them instead of placing blame. Rao agrees: “When we’ve accepted social media with open arms, let’s accept that we don’t know everything.”