Sharenting: Making virtual celebrities of your kids
The growing trend of "sharenting" is making children and pets #Instagram famous
Thanks to social media, it's never been easier to put our personal lives in the public realm. But how much of what goes on behind closed doors is appropriate for our Twitter or Instagram feeds?
Are some things best kept private, or is the urge to broadcast your life so intense that it's nigh on impossible to hold back?
It's not all about bragging and one-upmanship - you don't have to be kicking back at your beach house in Antigua to be party to this trend. If you're taking a picture of the meal you've been served at a swish restaurant, to be instantly posted to your social media feed, you're 'that guy' too: the person for whom nothing is worth doing unless you can let the rest of the world know about it. Selfie-fever feeds into this as well – nowadays it's not enough to shake a celebrity's hand: you have to squeeze close for a snap so friends can bask in your nanosecond of glory.
What though, of "sharenting"? The debate over its morality has been raging since the term was coined, in reference to parents plastering their kids' adorable faces all over Facebook, with or without their permission (and let's be honest, typically the children are of an age where permission isn't something they are capable of giving). However these days it's not just confined to Facebook and people we "know" - Instagram and Twitter have opened a whole new world of people to share with, making mini celebrities of the children (and pets) whose images are posted there.
Not all 'sharents' have button-cute offspring, of course. The same urge to share, share, share is indiscernible among pet owners who, in increasing numbers, are apparently of the opinion there's no point having a dog/cat/tank of piranhas if you cannot advertise the fact with all mankind (or, at least, all of mankind subscribing to your timeline).
Sharenting, however, has really taken off with online trendsetters. It's like keeping up witht the Jones, or the Kardashians for that matter, but 2014 style. These are no ordinary gurgling baby snaps, but poised, posed mini-me, model-esque offspring with designer handbags and perfect hair. Yep, even 5 year old boys are dressed better than you online, and you only have to look at the instaccount @fashionkids to see for yourself.
Why are we in such a hurry to share our intimate lives online? Is this the new version of a bonny baby competition, a virtual children's pageant? There is evidence that this sort of sharing is addictive – delivering a psychological kick that leaves us craving more - does that kick get even stronger when our beloved offpsring are involved? "Some of the same psychological quirks that cause people to smoke cigarettes," writes Josh Harkinson in Mother Jones magazine "also explain why they don't stop sharing personal details online."
That's fine so far as it goes – if you're a show off about yourself or your family, who are the rest of us to scoff? However, it is easy to imagine circumstances in which our taste for the spotlight could return to haunt us. You've set the digital genie free and there's no wedging it back in the bottle.
"The problem with digital footprints," Tony Anscombe, of the internet security firm AVG, told the Guardian last year, "is that it's difficult for an individual to control that information once it's out there. When it comes to our children, we're making the decision to put things out on their behalf, and what seems appropriate now may not be appropriate in 10 years' time."
Which is well and good – as an adult, you can live with the consequences. If, on the other hand, you've been assailing the internet's eyeballs with pics of your kids, might you come to regret your exhibitionism on their behalf? You may think footage of your four-year-old dressed as a pumpkin is SO cute Will he feel likewise when he's 21 and preparing for his first job interview? Maybe not.
"I share photos of my kids on Facebook and on my blog Learnermama.com," says mother of three Lucy O'Connor. "I am comfortable doing so as I am in control of the privacy status. I do of course worry about [the images] being misused or getting into the wrong hands but I have hundreds of worries as a mother – my kids getting ill, being involved in an accident, being bullied etc. I see it as part of my job to manage these risks as best as possible and within my own comfort zone." Still, there's a narrow line between utilising the internet to preserve cherished memories and being an exhibitionist, feels Dee O' Doherty, who writes about parenting at labellemama.com.
"I love seeing old photos and hearing stories from my parents – how they met, the mischief I got up to and all the things I can't remember myself. For me, my blog and Facebook/Instagram serve as a kind of 'diary'. It's permanent, I won't lose those stories or photos. I want to be able to tell him all the stories, including the 'How I met your Father' posts I'm writing. I want him to know how proud he's made me and this is how I'm doing it. Having said that, I do not post photos or write about things that I think will one day be embarrassing or upsetting for him. That's definitely something that's always on my mind, and on occasion I'll run something by my husband first. I would hate, one day, for a schoolmate to read something and tease him about it. In view of that, my Facebook page posts only to friends and some of my albums are private – just for me."
Blogger Andrea Mara (officemum.ie) admits having felt torn over posting images of her children. She concluded that by the time her kids were old enough to have an opinion, the dilemma would be impossibly quaint. She's right: the next generation's notion of privacy will likely be very different from ours. "When I started a parenting blog I included photos of my kids where they were relevant to a particular post. I stopped to question myself on this first – was it okay? Was I doing something I'd regret later – would they be angry? I decided no. They're growing up in a world where people share millions of photos online every day. They see this as normal, and I don't think they'll single me out as guilty. They've seen my blog so there won't be any big reveal in the future. And of course, like everyone else, I only post the cutest ones."
First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent