Parenting, Social Media, and Boundaries

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Several years ago, my then-4-year-old daughter made a hilarious remark at the dinner table. When my husband and I had finished laughing, she beamed at me and asked:

"Mama, are you going to post that on Facebook?"

At first her question made me laugh all over again—I didn't think she even knew what Facebook was, let alone that I sometimes posted her funny comments or drawings (to a carefully locked-down list of family and friends). But the more I thought about it, the more uncomfortable her question made me feel. Was posting on social media merely the 21st-century equivalent of telling my girlfriends about it over coffee, or was it a violation of my daughter's privacy?

My daughter is eight years old now, and I had mostly forgotten the incident until a recent dust-up in the blogosphere brought it back to me. This fall, parent blogger Jenna Andersen came under fire for posting a controversial Instagram picture of her children. The photo went viral, with hundreds of appalled parents weighing in. Some were concerned with the fact that the children had access to an inappropriate device—but for me, and many others, the intriguing part was the fact that the photo was posted publicly.

Many years from now, that photo will still be archived somewhere on the Internet. What will Andersen's children think of that? Could it be used against them somehow? Or will it be merely what Andersen claims it was—an innocent but hilarious photo and fodder for future family lore?

Social media not only gives us a chance to stay connected to family and friends, but also a means to craft our own online identities. On Facebook, we can present ourselves as comedians, as political pundits, as participants in sitcom-perfect family life. Instagram filters give our lives, our experiences—even our food—a magazine-spread-worthy glow. But when we start crafting our children's identities as well as our own, have we crossed a boundary?

A Digital Trust Fund

Amy Webb, who runs the digital strategy agency Webb Media, would probably say yes. In an article for Slate last year, Webb revealed that she and her husband keep all information about their daughter offline—to give her a childhood "free of bias and presupposition."

Discussing another child whose parents regularly post photos and updates, Webb wrote: "It's hard enough to get through puberty. Why make hundreds of embarrassing, searchable photos freely available to her prospective homecoming dates? If [her] mother writes about a negative parenting experience, could that affect her ability to get into a good college? We know that admissions counselors review Facebook profiles and a host of other websites and networks in order to make their decisions."

Webb and her husband created a "digital trust fund" for their own daughter: They registered her name on dozens of social media sites, all tied to a single email address. Those profiles remain active but private and content-free. When they believe their daughter is mature enough, Webb and her husband will give her the passwords. "She'll have the opportunity to start cashing in parts of her digital identity," Webb wrote in Slate, "We'll ensure that she's making informed decisions about what's appropriate to reveal about herself, and to whom."

Smart Sharing

Andersen and Webb couldn't be further apart in their attitudes towards sharing their children's images and stories online. But is either one of them right or wrong? How can a parent know when they've crossed a boundary?

"I don't think there's a one size fits all answer," says Janell Burley Hofman, author of iRules: What Every Tech-Healthy Family Needs to Know About Selfies, Sexting, Gaming and Growing Up. "Instead, families need to be empowered to know and set their own family boundaries and be willing and open to redefine them as the technology and family changes. This takes communication and open mindedness. It also takes trust, parental maturity, and a deep understanding of our individual children and their comfort level with their lives being shared."

Hofman recommends asking yourself some basic questions before posting about children online. If you aren't sure of the answers, she says, let it go and err on the side of personal and private:

  • Is this post/story necessary? Is there a real benefit to this post—is it funny, warm-hearted, teachable—or am I just making noise online without purpose?
  • Have we (as a family or parent/child) resolved this issue? An issue still being worked out in the home, or one that is either vulnerable or highly emotional, should not be made public.
  • How does my child feel about posting/personal story sharing online?
  • Is it appropriate? Does it stay within the boundaries of our family values? Are we showing respect for our child? Will this seem as funny in 5, 10, or 15 years? Or is this post better suited for sharing with a small group of family members? Or maybe not at all?

"I think that families that take their time making choices about the Internet, using balance and mindfulness, will probably have the most success representing their child online," Hofman says. "Essentially, a child believes that a parent will do what is right and best for them—and that is truly our obligation and should be our ultimate goal."

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