Our social feeds are flooded with filtered photos of newborn babies and too-cute toddlers. But should we be concerned about internet safety when posting about our children's lives? Caroline Corcoran uncovers the psychology of 'kid spamming'
In the ten months since I’ve become a mother, I have taken thousands of pictures of my baby – yogurt smeared over his eyebrows, grinning in the bath or our faces squeezed together in a selfie. Those shots have been pored over with sleepy parental wonder by my partner and me, pinged to grandparents on WhatsApp and framed for our mantelpiece. But none of these images have been shared online; I’m not guilty of kid spamming.
I don’t judge anyone for ‘kid spamming’ their own friends on Facebook, but as somebody who worries about online privacy, I didn’t feel it was my right to choose how public my son’s life would be. With so much of ourselves being put ‘out there’ nowadays, I also felt an instinctive compulsion to keep my family life in a safe, offline bubble. One scroll of Instagram, though, and it’s clear I’m in the minority. In 2016, parents posted 54 per cent more images of their children than they did in 2015, and by their child’s fifth birthday, the average British parent has shared 1,498 pictures of their child. So, is this simple parental pride or is there something else going on?
Vicky Charles, 35, a copywriter from Salisbury, became a single parent three weeks after her daughter Samaire, five, was born prematurely – she turned to social media for support. ‘Because my life was in such chaos, I had no confidence in what I was doing as a mum,’ she says. ‘So I sought reassurance from other parents online that I was doing OK. When I got comments and likes it was a huge boost, particularly at night when I was exhausted and by myself. The more response I got, the more I posted.’
A 2016 study by America’s Ohio State University showed that this experience is common: 16 per cent of new mums believe posting online helps them feel less alone. But psychologist Dr Paula Durlofsky believes that for other mothers, social media can leave you feeling lonelier than ever, especially if you are trying to create an image of a ‘perfect’ family life. ‘While some people post “warts and all”, others make their life look idealised,’ says Dr Durlofsky. ‘The issue with using social media in this way is that the one-upmanship can turn people away. If they feel you’re showing off, it will inhibit the formation of healthy relationships with other mothers that are based on mutual respect, support, care and compassion. Instead, playing the “upmanship game” increases feelings of competition, hostility and resentment.’
Kid spamming is, Dr Durlofsky argues, the modern incarnation of competitive parents at the school gates. ‘Whether it’s online or with the other mums at the daily pick-up, the ethos is the same,’ she says. ‘The desire to showcase our achievements – which includes our children – is part of the human condition, but it’s how much emphasis you place on the response that reveals whether it’s harmful,’ says Dr Durlofsky. ‘Some people can post online and the feedback won’t impact their definition of who they are. Others, however, will be checking constantly, because the validation from other mums is important to their identity and perception of “success”. That’s when it can become very far removed from being anything to do with the child.’
Studies show that when we get online responses from kid spamming, we release dopamine, the feel-good hormone, but only in small amounts. This means we crave another hit, so we post again and the cycle continues, which is how accusations of kid spamming can emerge. There are even apps like Unbaby.me that scan your social timelines for keywords associated with baby pictures, then removes them. The app received 2,000 likes in the first 30 minutes of launching.
Holly June Smith, 31, from London, chooses not to post photos of her daughter online, because of internet safety concerns. ‘I’m active on Twitter and Instagram, and there are kids I’d recognise in the street just from social media, even though they don’t know me. I find that uncomfortable,’ she says.
So, what is the current law when it comes to posting images of our children? In the UK, we as parents are ‘custodians’ of their data, so we’re able to post whatever we choose until they are 18, at which point the ownership shifts to them. The issue there, though, is that if the child wishes their online profile to be different to the one their mum or dad created, even if the parent agrees to remove the ‘kid spamming’ images, it’s virtually impossible to fully ‘delete’ pictures – most social networks and search engines make copies to their own servers.
And then, of course, there is the darker side of the web when it comes to internet safety. Ann Marie Christian is a child-protection practitioner and is surprised by how naive people are when it comes to children’s safety online. ‘Paedophilia is everywhere and, sadly, we now have to think the unthinkable,’ she says. ‘Criminals can scan the web for images of children of specific ages or genders and use filters to find pictures containing exposed flesh. In extreme cases, they can even work out locations and follow the child before approaching them in real life.’
Christian is shocked, too, by how much parents who post fail to consider their offspring as individuals, rather than just social-media material. ‘It’s often about their needs, not the child’s,’ she says of kid spamming. ‘Parents will tell them the importance of internet safety, then do the opposite when they share pictures of them. You have to think about their future, too. Companies like Google do a lot of online profiling via social media, and what you put out there is impossible to take back.’
In short, kid spamming is an ever-evolving issue and one that for the first generation of ‘Facebook kids’ born in the 2000s has its own repercussions, as they begin to juggle their parents’ posts of them on social media with their own as young adults.
Grace England, 17, from Croydon says the images her mother posts of her on Facebook don’t bother her. ‘My mum only wants her page to be visible to her friends, whereas most people of my generation let anyone who has a mutual friend follow them. So, for me, people seeing my pictures isn’t a big deal,’ she says. But not all teenagers feel the same about kid spamming. In France, stringent privacy laws mean that parents could face up to a year in prison for posting pictures of their children without their consent. A landmark case in Austria last year saw an 18-year-old girl sue her mother and father over photos they had uploaded. ‘They knew no shame,’ she told Austria’s Heute newspaper. ‘They didn’t care if I was sitting on the toilet or lying naked in the cot; every moment was photographed and made public.’
It’s something to bear in mind next time you’re hovering over the ‘share’ button.