It's an ongoing dilemma for most parents today.
Being a parent has always involved a minefield of choices, and the digital age has only raised the stakes. We are faced with decisions our own parents wouldn’t even have fathomed back in the days of screechy dial-up modems and not-so-Instant Messenger.
From the moment you find out you’re expecting a child, the pressure is on to decide what kind of parent you’re going to be. There are the questions which divided our NCT group back in the summer of 2013: Will you breastfeed or use formula? Will you use a dummy? And there are the questions which divide the expectant masses of today: Have you announced your pregnancy on Instagram? How much of an online presence will your child have? Will you sharent?
When I wrote my novel, The Girl with the Green Eyes, three years ago, I found the inclusion of social media to be a useful plot device leading to the main character Bella and her daughter Ariana going on the run. It was only too easy to imagine how difficult monitoring a curious preteen, and keeping her off the social media running rampant through the demographic back in 2018, might be.
And now… with the rise of TikTok and the increase of family-centric content on YouTube – complete with snappy, click-bait titles and cutesy thumbnails – now, it would be even harder. There’s a huge, ongoing debate rumbling through the internet: How much privacy should our children be entitled to? Should they be banned from appearing on social media completely until a certain age? For Bella, it’s not so much about protecting her daughter’s privacy as it is concealing her entire identity. For others, of course, things are far less clear-cut. But what was palpable from all those I spoke to who do sharent, was a sense of guilt. And if we’re feeling guilty about it, can it be entirely right?
I have been a parent – and, to an extent, a sharent – for eight years now. I never set out to be a mum blogger, and still consider it a hobby more than anything. I was fairly young when I had my eldest, and what started out as a dazed, what-the-hell-am-I-doing-now flurry of posts has, I hope, evolved into a parenting journey containing nuggets of experience-based advice which may be helpful to others. That is why, when I had a big wobble over whether I was over-sharing and almost deleted the whole thing a few years ago, I decided to keep it going, albeit with identifying details abridged. And I believe that this kind of sharenting can help others, particularly when you chronicle things in an honest way.
“When I had twins I started a blog on Facebook,” explains mum-of-three Natalie. “I used it as a coping mechanism as it was a very hard time. I felt socially isolated on maternity leave and having an outlet helped me.” Natalie also hated the ‘perfect mums’ on social media, feeling they only added extra pressure to a heightened situation. “When we see those posts it can affect us really negatively. When I shared, I’d try to really show the reality of life with twins and this seemed to go down well, with a lot of people thanking me,” Natalie tells me.
Is it always helpful, though? I spoke to another mum, Emily, who came off all social media before having her first child. “I just don’t see it as positive for anyone,” she says, “let alone those already facing challenges in life. Roosevelt said, ‘comparison is the thief of joy’, and I believe that really applies here… My daughter is not a pet or a new pair of shoes. She’s a human being. I respect her and wouldn’t feel comfortable using her to impress distant acquaintances or strangers. Either through a straight up ‘nice show-off photo’ or through an ironic or self-deprecatingly comic one,” explains Emily. “She’s not old enough to agree to be used in this way. And as a shy child who dislikes being the centre of attention, I can guarantee if she was old enough she’d be against the idea.”
Dad-of-two Mark also has concerns over the issue of consent when it comes to sharenting, and says he has become a lot stricter with the amount he shares of his children since his second was born. “Once things are online, it’s very difficult to fully remove them. How might [my son] feel when he’s older and wants to present himself in a certain way, but he’s partially defined by loads of pictures of videos of him as a five-year-old?” Mark poses. “It doesn’t seem fair.”
That said, Mark tells me he does understand the compulsion to share pictures of your children online. “You love your kids and want to share that with the world. [My son] sometimes says or does things that I’d love to share, but I always stop and think about how he might feel about it in future before I do.”
For some, the choice to sharent is tied to obligation. “A lot of [what I share] is so my in-laws can see what [their granddaughter] is up to as they don’t use messaging like WhatsApp, etc, and we haven’t seen them since August 2020,” says mum-of-one Hayley. “During the various lockdowns I definitely started to share more. I sometimes feel a bit guilty about sharing because I don’t want to be seen as one of ‘those’ mums who shares too much and feel like I have to qualify it by saying, ‘it’s so my in-laws can see!'”
That sense of guilt, of needing to justify our sharenting, is not a novel one. Mum-of-two Georgina, who frequently shares on Facebook and Instagram, admits, “I do worry sometimes about what I share, whether it’s too much. But I don’t have a huge number of followers/friends on social media and those I do have are all people I know or have met. My accounts are private for a reason.”
But what of those whose accounts are anything but private? What of the countless family-centric accounts depicting seemingly-ordinary families doing seemingly-ordinary things, just broadcast to thousands, sometimes millions. There are toddlers out there with followings I, as a fledgling author, can only dream about. One clear benefit is that they’re already set up with the foundations of a following, should they decide on a public-facing career in future. On the other hand, of course, they may find the whole thing mortifying in a year or ten and, considering nothing on the internet can be permanently deleted, who are they going to blame for putting them in such a position?
I suppose it comes back to the question: are your sharenting choices setting your kids up for the future, whether that’s as simple as a relationship with family who wouldn’t see so much of them otherwise, or as complicated as a career which includes a ready-made audience? Or are you just setting them up? I suppose there’s no real answer – the best we can hope for is that our kids see it as the former.
The Girl with the Green Eyes, part one of Take Her Back trilogy, is out now.