In a recent essay published in The Washington Post, a mother explained her decision to continue writing essays and blog posts about her daughter even after the girl had protested. The woman said that while she felt bad, she was “not done exploring my motherhood in my writing.”
One commenter criticized parents like the essay’s author for having “turned their family’s daily dramas into content.” Another said the woman’s essay surfaces a “nagging – and loaded – question among parents in the age of Instagram. … Are our present social media posts going to mortify our kids in the future?”
These questions are valid, and I’ve published research about the need for parents to steward their children’s privacy online. I agree with critics who accuse the woman of being tone-deaf to her child’s concerns.
However, I believe the broader criticism of parents and their social media behavior is misplaced.
I’ve been studying this topic – sometimes called “sharenting” – for six years. Too often, public discourse pits parents against children. Parents, critics say, are being narcissistic by blogging about their kids and posting their photos on Facebook and Instagram; they’re willing to invade their child’s privacy in exchange for attention and likes from their friends. So the story goes.
But this parent-versus-child framing obscures a bigger problem: the economic logic of social media platforms that exploit users for profit.
A natural impulse
Despite the heated responses sharenting can evoke, it’s nothing new. For centuries, people have recorded daily minutiae in diaries and scrapbooks. Products like baby books explicitly invite parents to log information about their children.
Communication scholar Lee Humphreys sees the impulse parents feel to document and share information about their kids as a form of “media accounting.” Throughout their lives, people occupy many roles – child, spouse, parent, friend, colleague. Humphreys argues that one way to perform these roles is by documenting them. Looking back on these traces can help people shape a sense of self, construct a coherent life story and feel connected to others.
If you’ve ever thumbed through an old yearbook, a grandparent’s travel photos or a historical figure’s diary, you’ve looked at media accounts. Same if you’ve scrolled through a blog’s archives or your Facebook Timeline. Social media may be fairly new, but the act of recording everyday life is age-old.
Writing about family life online can help parents express themselves creatively and connect with other parents. Media accounting can also help people make sense of their identities as a parent. Being a parent – and seeing yourself as a parent – involves talking and writing about your children.
Surveillance capitalism enters the equation
Framed this way, it becomes clear why telling parents to stop blogging or posting about their children online is a challenging proposition. Media accounting is central to people’s social lives, and it’s been happening for a long time.
But the fact that parents are doing it on blogs and social media does raise unique issues. Family album photos don’t transmit digital data and become visible only when you decide to show them to someone, whereas those Instagram pictures sit on servers owned by Facebook and are visible to anyone who scrolls through your profile.
Children’s opinions matter, and if a child vehemently opposes sharenting, parents could always consider using paper diaries or physical photo albums. Parents can take other steps to manage their children’s privacy, such as using a pseudonym for their child and giving their child veto power over content.
However, debates about privacy and sharenting often focus on a parent’s followers or friends seeing the content. They tend to ignore what corporations do with that data. Social media didn’t cause parents to engage in media accounting, but it has profoundly altered the terms by which they do so.
Unlike the diary entries, photo albums and home videos of yore, blog posts, Instagram photos and YouTube videos reside in platforms owned by corporations and can be made visible to far more people than most parents realize or expect.
The problem is less about parents and more about social media platforms. These platforms increasingly operate according to an economic logic that business scholar Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism.” They produce goods and services designed to extract enormous amounts of data from individuals, mine that data for patterns, and use it to influence people’s behavior.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In her book on media accounting, Humphreys mentions that in its early days, Kodak exclusively developed its customers’ film.
“While Kodak processed millions of customer photos,” Humphreys writes, “they did not share that information with advertisers in exchange for access to their customers. … In other words, Kodak did not commodify its users.”
Social media platforms do just that. Sharenting tells them what your child looks like, when she was born, what she likes to do, when she hits her developmental milestones and more. These platforms pursue a business model predicated on knowing users – perhaps more deeply than they know themselves – and using that knowledge to their own ends.
Against this backdrop, the concern is less that parents talk about their kids online and more that the places where parents spend time online are owned by companies who want access to every corner of our lives.
In my view, that’s the privacy problem that needs fixing.