Sunday 21 July 2019

Kate Gunn: 'I shared too much of my kids' lives online and learned a harsh lesson'

As Meghan and Harry post new pictures of baby Archie, writer Kate Gunn, who frequently wrote about her children, warns how sharenting can come back to hurt kids when they're older

New to sharenting: Kate Gunn with her children Kaya (11, now 15), Marley (9, now 12) and Baxter (7, now 10), pictured for a story she wrote in 2016. Photo: Steve Humphreys
New to sharenting: Kate Gunn with her children Kaya (11, now 15), Marley (9, now 12) and Baxter (7, now 10), pictured for a story she wrote in 2016. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Kate Gunn

The click of the camera, the scroll through the photos to find the best one, the opening of the app and then the writing of the perfectly formed caption… What is this obsession of likes and shares we all fall victim to? And why do we feel the need to share the most private of family moments with the waiting world on a daily basis?

When I saw the sweet photo of baby Archie that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle released to mark Father's Day, it made me pause to think. As a long-time parenting blogger and freelance writer, I've done more than my fair share of sharenting. And yes, I know it's easy to judge, but in my defence your honour, there are a few mitigating factors I would like to raise.

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Firstly, we are the first generation of parents who have been faced with the infancy of both our children and social media.

When it comes to online sharing we are still learning to navigate the territory of what's okay and what is definitely not, but also what some people think is okay and others certainly don't. It's a minefield of addiction, rules, and varied personality types that we need to navigate.

Every proud parent wants to show off their precious child to friends and family, and maybe even their neighbours, online support groups and Instagram friends. Some use only private WhatsApp groups, requesting the removal of photos from other people's accounts when they slip through the net. I have rolled my eyes in the past at people like this, but in recent years I'm coming around to the idea that perhaps they are right after all.

For most parents it's a happy medium. Photos of their children shared to a private Facebook or Instagram account. That's okay, right? Well, maybe not. As children get older this becomes the most embarrassing sharing of all - sharing to people who know you. I've had my children come home from school outraged because little Johnny's mummy (whom I'm friends with) showed him a picture from Facebook and - 'IT'S SO EMBARRASSING MUM, WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?!' It doesn't matter that the picture I posted was to my private Facebook profile. Or that the image was seemingly harmless - two brothers in arms puckering up to the camera. But it wasn't my face in the photo. It was his. And he didn't like it, and therefore it was wrong.

Baby Archie. Photo: REUTERS
Baby Archie. Photo: REUTERS

When my children were young I wrote about them daily, sharing pictures to a public blog and social media presence, alongside the trials and tribulations of parenthood. And this is the second point where I hold firm. I believe that women publicly sharing the realities of motherhood and family life is deeply important. It has brought down barriers of fear and shame that have existed for far too long in the world of motherhood. It's the quiet admission in your little corner of the internet that everything is not okay, and the wave of support and connection that follows. Hands all over the country being raised to say, 'I'm not okay either'.

But perhaps we all need to have those conversations without the faces of our children staring back at us through the screen.

In the early days when I shared too much (and I did), my main concern was safety, rather than my children's own digital footprint or embarrassment levels. I justified it to myself by the fact that our names and pictures were already in numerous newspaper articles. If someone wanted to find out about us then a quick Google would do. So, I reasoned that it didn't matter whether I did or didn't put their pictures onto social media.

The topics of those articles were often important to me. I wrote about Ireland's abysmal breastfeeding rates and what we needed to do to change them. I wrote about work/life balance and flexible working for families. And I wrote about the joy and secrecy of co-sleeping. But each of these pieces was built around the subject of me and my family.

I remember the moment clearly when I first learned the lesson that we tell our children again and again - that once it's out there you can't take it back. And that feeling of lost control when you are not in charge anymore. One of my children had googled their own name and an old article came up about co-sleeping. The headline read 'I haven't slept with my husband for over 7 years'. She found it and was dismayed. Hardly helped by the fact that we had recently separated. It was a harsh lesson to learn - both for her and for me. My concerns quickly shifted from safety, to my children's own sense of privacy.

Ironically, since then, I've written a book about my marriage breakdown, and although the children haven't read it yet, it contains their story. I'm still a great believer in sharing stories. They have given the book their blessing in so far as their ages allow, and only time will tell whether it is another case of over-sharenting on my part. I certainly hope not.

After a decade of sharing online, I now know that I can't post pictures of my children without asking them first. They are 10, 12 and 15 and know very definitely if they want something put into the public domain or not. Sometimes I get the go-ahead, other times it's a complete veto - no matter how adorable or beautiful I find the picture. On those occasions I make do with a group WhatsApp message. But it's not quite the same. Over the years my Instagram account had become my family photo album. So many other digital pictures that were taken during that time have been lost to broken phones and aged laptops. But Instagram is always just a password away. Holding our memories together in its perfectly formed squares. These days my children's faces make less and less of an appearance, a reminder that I need to start printing physical photos again.

We tell our children not to have social media accounts, to be careful, to think before you post, to set up restrictions and privacy settings, and yet we are often the worst perpetrators. Fortunately, I now have three very aware kids to keep me on the straight and narrow.

So what does Kate's daughter think?

"When I was younger I felt okay with mum sharing pictures of me online, but sometimes my friends would find the pictures and I'd be a bit embarrassed.

"When I got older and saw them myself, I realised that lots of people I didn't know had seen and liked them. It felt a bit weird to me that these strangers were liking my picture. Nowadays, mum doesn't share as much about us online, or asks my permission first, which makes me feel more secure. I know she wouldn't post anything without checking first.

"I don't mind the old photos of when I was younger being out there now, I just want any new pictures to be run past me first. I think parents can be a little bit hypocritical sometimes about social media and sharing stuff online. They tell us it's bad for our mental health - but what about your mental health? I guess it's tricky for everyone." - Kaya Gunn, 15

Irish Independent

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