The sharent trap: How uploading children’s lives online became a moral and ethical minefield

Meet Jack. He’s just appeared in his nursery nativity play, in an adorably fleecy sheep costume with black face paint on his button nose. Not so long ago, you saw him grinning as widely as his Halloween pumpkin. In the summer, he was shrieking in the sea. A year ago, he was smearing cake on his face. You’ve even seen his ultrasound when he was the size of a peanut.

In fact, whether you’ve met Jack or not, you’ve got a pretty good idea of what his three years of existence look like because he’s all over your social feeds. Parents of young kids are typically in their early thirties, meaning they were teenagers when the first iPhone was launched in 2007. For all their adult life, they’ve had a camera in their pocket, and the ability to share any meaningful moment faster than they can sneeze. Little wonder that 70 per cent of UK parents put pictures of their kids online at least once a month, according to image protection platform Pixsy, with younger parents (18-24) twice as likely as older ones to post. Welcome to the age of “sharenting”.

Let’s start with an important caveat. Parents need more guilt like the world needs another pandemic. Fretting about whether we overshare photos joins an endless list of angst: am I working too much/not enough? Is my kid miserable at daycare/under-stimulated at home? Are they learning to settle themselves to sleep/traumatised for life? Is schlepping them to baby taekwondo exhausting/enriching?

To stay sane, we should remember the positives about our connected parenting lives, which alarmist headlines overlook. Motherhood is an isolating experience at the best of times – and then there was Covid. Social media is a lifeline for many. Personally, sharing almost daily photos on WhatsApp helps my daughter and her grandparents feel close even though we live in different countries, and lets me watch my nieces and nephew grow. Who cares if my camera reel makes the volume of documents shared in the Panama Papers exposé look lightweight?

It’s also hard to overemphasise the peculiar blend of stress and tedium that parenting very young children entails. Anyone who waxes lyrical about losing the phone and living in the moment has probably not spent that many moments with a two-year-old. It’s hardly surprising if parents turn to social media to savour the fragments of joy in a sea of drudgery. Sharing a photo curates our reality – and that’s not always a bad thing. You feel better about the snotty tissues, numbing tiredness and tantrums over the wrong colour wellies that made up your morning with a toddler when you look back at your phone at bedtime. There she is on a swing, eyes popping as if she’s ascending to heaven. That’s what your day meant. Our memories make us.

The sharenting trend reflects a culture of openness that helps as well as harms. One of my favourite things on the internet is the professional climber Shauna Coxsey’s Instagram feed: she kept bouldering (safely) throughout her pregnancy, and shares video of training with a newborn in tow. Gorgeous in their own right, these posts also help to challenge stereotypes around motherhood: pregnancy is not fragility, self-sacrifice is not a given. For many young parents, TikTok is a go-to resource: 40 per cent of Gen Z use TikTok and Instagram rather than Google to search for information. Among the popular parenting accounts is LauraLove, which shows nearly eight million followers how it’s possible to instil “positive discipline” with communication and kindness. All the old-school parenting books in the world don’t have the same force as watching an actual toddler decide not to bite Mummy’s leg.

You don’t have to look far to find the flipside, of course. There’s plenty of good advice online, but there are few filters to stop people with zero clues and a sample size of one to preach nonsense with utter conviction. Checking the number of likes on your firstborn is dystopian, to say the least. And nothing kills spontaneity like being asked to run through those autumn leaves again while your parents unlock a screen. I’ve been to countless birthday parties where no one is actually watching the kid blow out the candles: we’re all looking at it through our phones.

I spoke to the manager of a nursery who agreed that sharenting culture is deeply ingrained. Kate O’Keefe, who works at the Buttercups Early Years Centre in Southampton, said: “We noticed that with the kids, whatever they did, they would say ‘Take a photograph, take a photograph.’ We photo them to within an inch of their lives, they’re waiting for the camera.” (The centre has strict policies over its own use of photos.)

This resonates with me. I asked my own daughter if I took too many photos of her, and she said, crushingly: “Sometimes, and it stops me having fun.” To a certain extent, history is repeating itself. As a child of the Eighties, I remember grinding my teeth as my father asked me to smile “naturally” for a holiday photo. But this was back when there were 36 photos in a roll of film, and when that was gone you could eat an ice cream in peace. The latest iPhone holds 35,000 photos. The cloud, endless numbers. We need to figure out when to stop.

Then there’s the fact that the other side of sharing is being shared with. Openness can be empowering but it can also be painful. In the UK, more than one in five pregnancies ends in miscarriage and one in seven couples have difficulty conceiving, according to the NHS. That’s a lot of people who might struggle with a deluge of baby photos.

There are darker ethical concerns, too. What does privacy mean if you reach adulthood with a trail of videos cataloguing your every blunder along the way? Are today’s baby photos a feast for the deepfakes of tomorrow? To what extent do your parents own your image? As a society, we’re still in the early years of the smartphone revolution and we don’t have the answers.

What is clearer is that the whole business model of big tech, which monetises attention, is deeply problematic. It’s not much good trying to avoid Facebook when, thanks to the quaint vagaries of competition law, Instagram and WhatsApp are also part of Meta. However you play it, chances are that the video of your kid riding a bike is feeding the profits of a ruthlessly avaricious company that basically broke democracy. Smile, junior!

As with most things connected to the internet age, sharenting isn’t inherently good or bad. It’s both. And most of us are pragmatic, changing our habits as our kids grow older. As small children grow into themselves, stop looking like generic cute potatoes, and start voicing opinions, we back off. We could all benefit from stepping away from our phones and into reality, but we don’t need a froth of moral panic over sharenting.

By the time the fictitious Jack of the opening paragraph is an adult, his parents will probably be spamming the internet with pictures of their dog or their camper van. Maybe Jack himself will join a backlash against connectivity and take his own kid’s photos with a vintage Kodak. Or maybe he’ll just be roaming the metaverse as the world burns.


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