Why 'oversharing' parents are being warned about their social media posts

By RNZ's Saturday Morning

Parents and children performing for social media clicks and views is "murky ground", says American journalist Kate Lindsay.

"Social media likes and engagement can motivate us to post certain things or behave in certain ways. When you bring a child into that, a child can very easily become a prop … and that creates a troubling dynamic," she tells Kim Hill.

Kate has followed 'mommy blogs' since they first became popular and believes the content is so appealing because parenting, in general, is largely an invisible, unpaid job that doesn't deliver much external validation. She recently wrote a piece for The Atlantic looking at the issues oversharing can raise in parenting. 

"As social media came into play, I think parents learned 'I can get validation for my parenting in this place, whereas I was not able to get any validation or encouragement before'.

"Motherhood is so thankless and I think lonely, so when you're spending hours doing the work of raising a child and you want to turn to the internet for advice or you just want sympathy or you want praise for something, it's such an understandable impulse.

"You post content, and you get that validation or that feedback that you otherwise weren't getting in this kind of lonely part of life. Understandably, your brain would start to be like, Okay, if I do that, I feel good. I feel better … and you start to notice, oh, when my kid does this, people seem to like it more."

Kate Lindsay
Kate Lindsay. Photo credit: The Atlantic

Posting family-related content can also be a "super lucrative" business, Lindsay says, but unlike child actors,  the children of influencers have no legal protection.

Under the Coogan Law (aka The California Child Actor's Bill), a percentage of any money a child actor earns before they turn 18 must be kept safe for them.

Yet the children of content creators aren't legally entitled to any of the money earned from images or videos they feature in.

Recently, Illinois became the first US state to pass a law protecting the earnings of children featured in "'monetised online content", with parents required to put a percentage of gross earnings into a trust.

This law doesn't protect the rights of children posted on social media accounts that aren't monetised, though, Lindsay says.

"If you're still posting them a lot, that child still doesn't really have any recourse if they grow up and don't like it anymore. Even if they haven't grown up, even if they're children and they don't like it, they technically don't have any right to demand it be taken down. There's nothing they can do to enforce it."

Currently, children of parents who were or are "oversharers" on social media have few legal options, she says.

One such child of an oversharer, 24-year-old Caymi Barrett, has become a vocal advocate for the protection of children on social media, even though her mother was not an influencer or content creator.

"[Caymi's] mother was a regular kind of parent, just like any other, but who was new to Facebook. And perhaps, as a lot of people weren't at the time, she wasn't quite aware of just how public social media could be. So she would accept every friend request and had a large audience of strangers and also at the same time really use Facebook as a scrapbook for [photos of] Caymi."

The Facebook page wasn't a highlights reel, though, as Caymi's mother included details of her medical issues, a car crash and "unflattering" personal information.

One summer, she posted about a skin condition Caymi had. Although the condition had healed when Caymi returned to school, her classmates refused to sit near her and the teacher even made her sit at an isolated desk.

Parents like Caymi's mother are not "cartoon villains", Lindsay says. In years past, there wasn't an awareness that social media would still be around and become even more prevalent.

Unfortunately, this problem is only getting worse. Yet in the United States, lawmakers who are not social media savvy don't understand why this is a serious issue, she says.

While legislation is one part of improving the situation, we also need to figure out how to socially enforce what is and isn't acceptable when it comes to the "slippery slope" of social media.

"Social media can kind of trick you and then get you to post more … That's a feeling that so many people feel. And parents, I imagine, benefit from that social media validation even more.

"Social media likes and engagement can motivate us to post certain things or behave in certain ways. When you bring a child into that, a child can very easily become a prop … and that creates a troubling dynamic.

"Also, I think it's worth considering the dynamic that that child is then going to have with their own social media because they're going to mimic what they were raised on. If it's a relationship that's very performative or very oversharing or just toxic in any way, that groundwork is being laid by how their parents are treating social media with them."

If every parent on social media becomes a little bit more thoughtful and aware of how their posts may impact their children, this would do wonders, Lindsay says - "just exercising judgment in terms of what it is you're sharing - is this for you or for them?"

"Now that we know every person grows up and assumes a social media identity of their own, is that an identity they would want to inherit?"

Depending on the platform, parents are usually able to take down any content they've posted of their children, Lindsay says. Private accounts, limited accounts, face covering and Instagram stories that disappear can also help keep images and videos of children in "a nice closed loop".

She also recommends parents keep an eye out for their children always 'performing'.

"When you see the little ways that the child growing up can feel like they need to perform, you see how a parent's relationship with social media is going to inform a child's relationship with social media."

The idea of a child giving consent for images of themselves to be posted is tricky because it requires saying no to your parents, she says.

"I think it's really hard for any child [to say no to content being posted], especially when they see what they're doing makes their parents happy. That's what they want, they want their parents to be happy. So really consent from a child in this scenario can only mean so much. It really is up to the parents to create an environment where a child can feel comfortable really sharing how they feel about this and the parent makes sure that they're not accidentally encouraging this kind of relationship.

"It's incumbent upon the parent to make sure they've created a really open environment where the child can feel comfortable expressing those thoughts and keep it being an open conversation that can change day to day."

Lindsay recommends parents keep up an open conversation flowing with their children about social media content, delete anything which makes anyone in the family feel uncomfortable and be mindful of the potential audience, i.e. a child's future employer.