Dangers of ‘sharenting’: How parents sharing too many pictures online are putting their kids at risk

MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — Many parents enjoy posting pictures of their children on social media, but researchers from West Virginia University are warning moms and dads to think twice before sharing images of their kids. Playfully nicknamed “sharenting,” posting pictures online may seem like a fun and easy way to show off your family’s best moments, but the study cautions that it’s important to understand the risks as well.

According to Laurel Cook, associate marketing professor at the John Chambers College of Business and Economics, sharenting is a much more serious and widespread problem than most parents realize. When someone posts an image online, it’s available for countless people to see and scrutinize. Besides just the consent and privacy questions this raises, it also could leave kids vulnerable to online predators.

Of course, it’s understandable why parents want to share pictures of their kids.

“It’s kind of like having bragging rights,” Prof. Cook explains in a university release. “But it’s sharing to much bigger audiences.”

Is sharing online in our DNA?

There’s also the biological component of social media to consider as well. Positive online social interactions, including comments and “likes,” often trigger the release of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine provokes feelings of reward, consequently reinforcing social media tendencies. The more likes parents receive on images of their children, the more likely they are to keep posting.

Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic caused many Americans to start using social media more often. This trend, researchers explain, has further intensified the risks associated with sharenting. Prof. Cook adds that many parents didn’t grow up with the internet and just aren’t aware of the risks — the biggest being predatory behavior.

“Much of the fodder for pedophiles is not manufactured,” Cook notes. “It comes from parents, from these public posts.”

Prof. Cook provides a compelling analogy to drive home her point.

“If we saw some random guy peering into our child’s window, what would our reaction be? Think of that situation online. The only difference is the physical versus the virtual realm.”

Once you share a photo, the world can exploit it

Many caregivers assume that strict privacy settings ensure an image is only seen by a select few, but the uncomfortable truth is that once an image is online anyone who views it can also save and share it. On a related note, many schools and camps post photos of students online as part of various promotional campaigns.

There’s also the lingering question of consent. Do children want their images plastered all over Facebook? Study authors note that some social media influencers with children even include their kids in their content for profit.

“It’s very obvious that there’s no real consent going on with many of these children,” Prof. Cook comments. “The opinion my colleagues and I have is that if the child is not able to understand and give consent — whatever age that might be for that child — then all that information should probably be kept private.”

Prof. Cook recommends never posting anything too personal. Photos of events like a birthday party can be shared after the fact, and parents should absolutely never mention specific dates, times, or locations.

It’s also imperative that parents understand both social media platforms and third-party websites collect data on users. This data includes “sharented” content which can be used to track personally identifiable information. This type of data collection can begin before a child is even born, forming a “digital footprint” that will follow the child their entire life.

“A lot more people have access to information about a minor than I think the world knows,” Prof. Cook states.

‘Sharenting information may be used for vile purposes’

Personal identifiable information can include name, Social Security number, and birthdate. Importantly, however, not all collected data is necessarily demographic. Some is psychographic, which means it describes people according to their psychological attributes. Examples include personality traits, sites visited often, and buying behaviors.

“It’s the fact that No. 1, there’s zero consent,” Prof. Cook continues. “No. 2, sharenting information may be used for vile purposes in some cases, and there’s a commerce component to that. So, there is money exchanging hands for these sorts of images and videos. And then No. 3, now it has become even more socially accepted to be commodified. Through sponsorships, parent influencers are now profiting from using images of their children online.”

In addition to her research on sharenting, Prof. Cook has also been looking into “dark design” practices. This approach to design is intentionally deceptive so as to manipulate users into giving consent to data collection. This tactic can be as simple as color choices. A platform like Instagram may present users with two buttons; one button asks for permission to personalize ads (bright blue) and sounds tailored to the user, while the other button appears less personalized (dark) and quite easy to overlook.

Some dark designs may actually trick users into sharing their personal data, which is then used to formulate further messages encouraging them to sign up for emails and services or make online purchases. Keep in mind that the “user” in these scenarios is just as likely to be a child as it is an adult. Prof. Cook notes an adolescent’s digital footprint could potentially feature harvested bits of information like their Little League team, their favorite foods, and their favorite apps.

Is the U.S. falling behind on protecting privacy?

Regulators and policymakers are just now beginning to understand how much data is being collected from each user.

“That’s why I’m working with a variety of legal experts on this project, because this idea of consent is still legally debated,” Prof. Cook says. “Policymakers in the U.K. and the U.S. need to have a shared understanding of what it means to consent.”

Data collection laws in the European Union are currently stricter than those in the United States, where data collection is largely under-regulated. However, researchers say they are encouraged by U.S. lawmakers’ recent reliance on empirical research to better inform policymaking.

All in all, Prof. Cook’s main goal is to help parents and caregivers navigate the unique modern challenges of sharenting.

“That’s what makes me wake up excited every day, to know that my work isn’t just theory,” the study author concludes. “It’s something that might move the dial a little bit, to help things change or at least bring awareness to the situation and come up with solutions. I want this environment for children and teens to be addressed. I’m very passionate about it.”

The study is published in the Journal of Consumer Affairs.

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