When Laney Griner took her 11-month-old son to the beach in 2007, she hoped to capture a wholesome moment: her boy about to shove a fistful of sand in his mouth. She snapped a picture. She uploaded the picture to her Flickr account.
Two years later, the photo had taken on a life of its own. The image was plucked from Griner’s control, with her son’s clenched fist and focused gaze becoming shorthand for that feeling when you close a deal or treat yourself to expensive shoes. It had become a meme. Legions of internet users would eventually come to know Griner’s son only as “Success Kid.”
Many parents create a digital footprint for their children from the first post of their baby’s ultrasound. Some details, like where the child goes to school, their birthday or other identifying information, can be used to exploit, experts advise. The Pragmatic Parent, for one, advises against posting kids’ full names, report cards or any sort of nudity, because these can be harmful in the wrong hands. But when any random picture could go viral, new questions are also emerging at the intersection of ethics, privacy and identity, forcing parents to ponder whether even posts that feel harmless actually are.
Parents often use social media to “perform their identities” — a phenomenon that everyone engages in by the clothing we wear or the car we drive; we’re always, consciously or not, presenting an image to the world. And as our social lives shift toward digital spaces, parents have turned to Facebook and Instagram to tell the world about their kids. “They need to be able to do that for their own psychological well-being,” says Jordan Shapiro, a senior fellow for the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. And certainly some posts are harmless.
Celebrating a child’s kindergarten graduation, for example, is a nonproblematic example of “sharenting,” a term coined in 2012 to describe when parents share updates and graphics about their kids online. Sharenting can carry some risk, like allowing embarrassing moments to remain accessible or providing potential ne’er-do-wells with identifying information.
Engaging responsibly is about striking a balance between expressing parental identity and preserving the child’s privacy. Experts advise letting common sense prevail, starting by taking the kids’ opinions and feelings into account early.
“Make sure what you’re posting is not public. Make sure you’re only sharing with a close group of friends,” adds Titania Jordan, chief parent officer at online safety company Bark Technologies, who recommends tightening privacy settings. “Trust in friends. Trust in relatives. And even then, unfortunately, most abuse of children happens through people the family knows, so keep your guard up.”
Another concern is when sharenting becomes oversharing. Phoebe Maltz Bovy, writing for The Atlantic in 2013, defined oversharing as having two components: identifiable information and the ambition to reach a mass audience. Consider The Holderness Family, a YouTube juggernaut with nearly 700,000 subscribers that posts family centered content. “I love their videos,” admits Angela Wentz Faulconer, a professor of philosophy at Brigham Young University. She sees them as fun and harmless, even if they do meet the criteria for oversharing.
“But, of course, we only see what they’re presenting to us,” she adds. “We don’t know what their kids are saying behind the scenes or what are the long-term impacts of being filmed all the time.”
Now consider a more queasy example: Parents using social media to shame their children. Does a parent have a right to permanently embarrass their kid in this way?
Faulconer isn’t sure, but she says people should have at least some control over their personal information. “The internet challenges that basic idea,” she says. Her research focuses on medical ethics, and from within that world, she points to an instructive theory known as “the child’s right to an open future.” The idea is that kids have certain rights that must be “saved for the child until he is an adult.”
Social media amplifies content in a way that makes it more accessible than any content before it. Combined with a Big Tech business model that rewards engaging content with cash and social currency, it’s worth wondering whether a parent’s inherent motivation to pursue a child’s best interest can become corrupted by the incentive to overshare.
The rewards can certainly be substantial — and often feel harmless. The Griners, for example, parlayed the “Success Kid” fame into an appearance at a comic-con-like event for internet stars and put the original “Success Kid” image up for sale earlier this year as a non-fungible token. It sold at auction for over $41,000.
That’s nothing compared to Zöe Roth, better known as “Disaster Girl,” who sold the memefied photo of her 4-year-old self standing in front of a burning house earlier this year for $500,000.
But perhaps the dilemma is best summed up by Jessica Curry Morton and her daughter Parker.
During a visit to the National Portrait Gallery in 2018, a random bystander snapped a picture of 2-year-old Parker awestruck in front of Michelle Obama’s portrait. The next day, Jessica’s close friends texted her, all with the same question: “Is this Parker?” They’d attached a photo of a little girl in a pink jacket and rain boots looking up at Michelle Obama’s portrait.
Yes, it was Parker. But Jessica hadn’t posted that picture. In fact, she had a reputation for never sharing anything about her kids online. So when she saw the photo going viral, her first reaction was one of fear, then anger.
“A layer of privacy that I wanted to maintain for my child just got stolen from me,” she says.
Within a week, though, Michelle Obama got in touch and invited Parker to come meet her. Parker and Jessica also co-wrote a children’s book about the moment, which has sold over 100,000 copies and made Parker the youngest-ever New York Times bestselling author. They’re publishing a sequel in November.
At first, Jessica was stuck in an accidental paradox: She didn’t want to exploit her daughter for money and attention, but she also didn’t want to close the door to opportunities like meeting the then-first lady or sharing her charming story with the world. So she talked to her daughter — insomuch as one can when talking to a 2-year-old about questions so much bigger than themselves — who was far more enthusiastic about TV appearances and interviews than she was. So she went along with it, despite her reservations.
“I didn’t want her to go viral,” she says. “I wanted her to be her own individual. … There’s just something so sacred about that.”
Her experience illustrates once more the fundamental tension of sharenting: how to balance the push and pull between a parent’s sharing impulse and a kid’s privacy — especially when the kid is too young to understand what privacy is.
“It’s a really good question,” admits Sarah Coyne, associate director of BYU’s School of Family Life, “and we don’t have concrete answers.”