It is entirely possible to invade the privacy of your child, regardless of how close you are or how many other intimate things you share in other spaces.
One day during a public speaking class, I had assigned group work and was walking up and down the aisles to help my students as needed. All of a sudden, like the wave at a basketball game, an entire row got out their phones and began shrieking over a picture on Instagram. To this day, I’m not sure what all the commotion was about. I just know there were gasps, outrage, and even some tears from the girl at the end of the row.
This image has stayed with me, I think, because it captures an adolescence that would have been impossible for me to experience myself. I didn’t join Facebook until my final year of college and only vaguely knew what Twitter was. If I wanted to see what my friends were saying or doing online, I had to head back to my dorm and get on a computer. Navigating physical changes, hormonal outbursts, and identity development was hard enough as a teenager without the constant interruption of a pocket screen. Now with anxiety and depression on the rise among Generation Z, I wonder not if, but to what extent, growing up with social media is a factor.
It’s not surprising that some teens are opting out of social media, or at least putting boundaries on what kind of content they share. Apple Martin, the 14-year-old daughter of actress Gwyneth Paltrow, is one member of Generation Z who has taken charge of her privacy as much as she can. When Paltrow posted a photo to Instagram of her with her daughter on a ski lift last week, Martin quickly commented her disapproval. “Mom we have discussed this,” she wrote. “You may not post anything without my consent.”
Paltrow shrugged off her daughter’s comment. “You can’t even see your face!” she responded, referring to the enormous goggles that hid everything above Martin’s nose. But as anyone whose parent has ever dragged out the dreaded naked baby pictures knows, there is such a thing as parental overreach. It is entirely possible to invade the privacy of your child, regardless of how close you are or how many other intimate things you share in other spaces.
Today’s parents are so eager to overshare photos, private moments, and other details about their children that the word sharenting has entered our lexicon. It refers to the act of sharing way too much information about your children online, particularly embarrassing stories or TMI content like bathroom mishaps. Some parents, like Justine Roberts who runs Mumsnet.com, are actively pushing back against this trend. “It can help to get into the habit of thinking ‘what would my child think about having their classmates stumble on this when they’re 15?’” Roberts advised during an interview with The Telegraph. “Generic cute photo, probably fine — splashing about in the bath, they might be less comfortable with.”
Others, like my friends Amanda and Bethany, have decided to be even more private when it comes to their young children’s online presence. Bethany does not share any photos of her son on social media and asks that others with photos of him do the same. In lieu of photographs, she periodically posts updates for her friends on how her son is doing, including some fun tidbits about his developing personality.
When I asked Bethany what contributed to her decision, she named three factors: her son’s safety from strangers online, sparing him embarrassment in the future, and Facebook’s policy that an account holder must be at least 13 years old. “I don’t know who [my son] is yet. I don’t know if he will ever want to have social media or if he will be like his dad and hate all forms of it,” Bethany told me. “He may hold it against me that I posted pictures without his consent or approval. I would hate to embarrass him or upset him.” But just as Apple’s plea to her mother was chalked up by some as an overreaction, Bethany’s choices have attracted their share of criticism. “A lot of people have told me that I’m overprotective and ridiculous,” she said, “but I worked really hard and sacrificed a lot for him to have the best life possible.”
After her son was born, Amanda only shared photos of him in a private Facebook group that friends were able to join. Over time, however, she found it difficult to keep this up. “Sharing my son’s pictures are natural because they are literally 99% of what I see, interact with, and care for,” she explained. “Protecting [him] by avoiding it entirely was too daunting for me.” She added that some parents she knows have had more success with keeping their children’s lives private on social media, and that one mom has decided not to post any photographs or videos until her children are old enough to consent. “When it comes time for my kids and I to discuss their right to privacy,” Amanda told me, “I know it will be important for me to respect them while also reassuring them that real moments aren’t always picture perfect.”
In a world where reality is constantly interrupted by the virtual, privacy can feel like a guilty pleasure. I feel this as a writer online who frequently writes about deeply personal topics, weighing the chance of helping others against my temporary discomfort. Being someone who voluntarily tells stories on public platforms, I understand a celebrity’s child like Apple setting boundaries on what about her is up for public consumption. And I think we often forget that even though children answer to us in many ways, they are still autonomous people who can and should make decisions about their own images. “My daughter says the same thing because in the end it is her image not mine,” one Instagram commenter chimed in on Gwyneth Paltrow’s post. “We are learning together how to navigate this social media thing.”
Learning together, let’s hope, includes listening and respecting.
Chelsea Cristene is an international student adviser, English professor, and graduate student based in Washington, D.C. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, The Establishment, and MamaMia, and has appeared on HuffPost Live. Find her on Twitter.