Many of us have seen a Facebook post or blog post from a parent that, well-meaning as it may be, leads us to wonder how the baby or toddler featured would respond if he or she were older.
A recent University of Michigan poll found nearly three-quarters of parents who use social media have witnessed this sort of “oversharing” by another mom or dad, in the form of embarrassing information about a child, inappropriate photos, or details that could identify a child’s location.
Many of those polled also acknowledged they may be guilty of this themselves. More than half said they worry that their kids will someday be embarrassed by what’s been shared.
While how much sharing is too much is far from clear-cut, social media is relatively new territory, and parents should be cautious about creating an identity for their kids before they have a chance to do so themselves, said Sarah J. Clark, associate director of the University of Michigan C. S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health, which included 569 parents of children newborn to 4 years old.
“This generation is sort of the guinea pigs in figuring this out,” she said. “In the past, people shared the embarrassing photo or home movie, but the circle was so much smaller, and you had much more ownership of [what you shared]. Now, the circle of who sees it may be much broader, and there’s less control.”
Although privacy settings on social networking sites allow parents some control over who sees what, there’s no guarantee that an aunt, uncle, grandparent, or friend has a good grasp of them, Clark said. In the poll, around two-thirds of parents said they worry that someone could find out private information about their child through social media, or that someone would re-share photos of their child. An extreme example of this has made headlines in recent months, with strangers reposting pictures of children and claiming them as their own.
Of course, social media also offers parents many important benefits. Nearly three-quarters of those polled said social media is useful for helping them to feel not alone, while two-thirds said it lets them get advice from more experienced parents. Sixty-two percent said using social media actually helps them worry less about their child.
“Sometimes you need someone to commiserate with, or to get advice from other parents about how they handled situations,” Clark said. “Particularly if you don’t have in-person supports, that anonymous community of social media users can step into the void.”
To balance the benefits and potential downsides of social media, Clark recommends a careful approach to posting about kids. She suggests using a child’s initial instead of full name when posting on a forum or blog, for instance, and leaving out the names of parks or other details that could be used to locate a child.
She also advises thinking twice before clicking “Post” on that potty training shot or something else that could be embarrassing down the road.
“There’s not right or wrong, but it’s good to be thinking about it,” she says. “It’s important to be thoughtful users of social media, based both on today and on the child in the future.”
Ami Albernaz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.