Future Tense

Parents Need to Listen to Their Kids When It Comes to Social Media Sharing


He cannot believe his mother posted that picture.


Milan Jovic/Thinkstock

It’s no surprise that parents tell their children to avoid posting personal information online. But a new study suggests that children want parents to do the same—particularly when it comes to information about them.

Researchers at the University of Washington and the University of Michigan surveyed 249 pairs of parents and children ages 10–17 about their family guidelines for technology use—both the adults’ rules for their kids and the rules that children believed parents should follow.

The most common rule that parents reported was that their children protect their identities and personal information. But there was a more interesting finding: While only 7 percent of the rules that parents reported said adults should avoid oversharing, 18 percent of the rules that children reported said adults should do so. (The study analyzed the rules themselves, not the percentge of parents and children that reported each type of rule.) This means that kids were more than twice as likely as parents to say that adults should not post information online about their kids without permission. Children in the study said “they find this content embarrassing and feel frustrated that parents publicly contribute to their online presence without permission,” the researchers wrote. The full study, published at the Association for Computing Machinery’s conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing, is available here. (Disclosure: I previously worked with Sarita Schoenebeck, who was part of the research team, though I was not involved in this study.)

Given how common it is for expectant parents to share sonogram images, children’s digital identities can predate their birth. This contrasts with the way many of us adults entered the world of social media. Sure, we’ve posted an unflattering photo or a dumb joke online here and there, and we may have asked others to remove pictures of us or to avoid tweeting a conversation. But we’ve done so as people whose brains are largely formed and who understand, in some form, what it means to share information online.

Children are still learning how to be human beings, let alone what it means to be themselves. Nevertheless, this research suggests that even by the age of 10, children grasp that sharing information about them online is a presentation of themselves, and they’d like a say in that, thank you very much.

Policymakers—at least, French policymakers—appear to be considering similar concerns. French law enforcement recently warned parents to stop posting pictures of children on Facebook, calling the practice “not safe” and a violation of children’s privacy. And in an article in the U.K. newspaper the Telegraph, some legal experts suggested that under French privacy law “parents could face penalties as severe as a year in prison and a fine of €45,000 … [about $51,000] if convicted of publicising intimate details of the private lives of others—including their children—without their consent.”

It’s certainly reasonable for parents and authorities to worry about children’s digital privacy. For instance, in 2015 a team of researchers at New York University found that information about children shared publicly on social network sites could be cross-referenced with public records to reveal such sensitive information as home addresses, birthdays, and political affiliations of parents. (The full study is available here.)

Despite these potential harms, telling parents to stop using social media is unrealistic and counterproductive. Many parents find social media a useful source of parenting information and social support. Venting about a child’s picky eating habits can help a parent maintain sanity, but it can also yield advice about how to make dinnertime less of a battle.

Shaming parents (not to mention fining or imprisoning them, as the French suggest) for posting information about children online is just as misguided. Instead, families are better off handling questions about technology use the same way they handle tricky topics like drugs, sex, or bullying—by keeping the lines of communication open. The researchers in the technology rules study found that children who had a say in their families’ rule-making processes were more likely to follow those rules.

Their results suggest that such communication should go both ways, with parents inviting (and honoring) their children’s opinions on sharing information about kids online. As K.J. Dell’Antonia wrote in the New York Times, “We have a whole house rule: no sharing images of anyone else without their consent, ever.” After all, the adage “Do as I say, not as I do” can only go so far when it comes to children.