To save Neverland, Peter Pan fought the pirates. To save their childhood, youth today need us, their parents, to fight against our “sharenting” habits. Our kids need us to protect their privacy and, along with it, their protected space to play so that they can make mischief, make mistakes, and grow up better for having made them.
“Sharenting” is so omnipresent that most of us don’t even realize we’re doing it. Typically, this term refers to what parents post on social media. But “sharenting” is about so much more than social. It’s about doing all the things on all the digital platforms, from apps to smartphones to iPads to smartwatches to digital assistants and beyond. More formally: “Sharenting” encompasses all those ways that parents (as well as grandparents, teachers, and other trusted adults) transmit, store, and otherwise use children’s intimate data via digital technologies. As a law professor and part of the Youth & Media team at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, I’ve spent years studying the ways that parents’ use of digital tech impacts kids.
If Peter Pan were a real boy, around today, he would encounter more sharenting moments than stardust. His conception and gestation could be tracked by a fertility app. Pictures of his mother’s ultrasound and video of her labor and delivery might go up on his parents’ social media accounts. His full name, exact date, time, and location of birth, as well as his vital statistics, might follow. His parents’ attempts to get him to sleep might be assisted by an AI nanny. His urine output could be tracked by a “smart diaper.”
His early learning could be tracked in apps and through smart toys, like a teddy bear connected to an online database. His summer camp registration might be done through an online portal that asks his parents to opt in to the use of facial recognition software. When his parents decide he’s old enough to ride his bike by himself, they might give him a smartwatch to wear that allows him to text them if he needs help—and allows them to track his location. Personal information from online surveys he takes would make its way to data-brokers, who could put his name on lists of kids (categorized by sensitive personal characteristics) that are available for sale to other institutions.
So far, everything in the story of today’s Peter is already happening.”
So far, everything in the story of today’s Peter is already happening. And it might get worse: In the future, Peter’s college application could be processed with a “personal capital” score, similar to a credit score, that uses data points going back to his conception and continuing through his adolescence to predict his chances of success in classes, extra-curriculars, and on future employment. That algorithm would be proprietary, opaque to Peter, his parents, and everyone outside the personal capital scoring company.
Already, there are digital data-driven products available that purport to predict the success of elite child athletes. A “social credit” score has been rolled out in China. High schools and higher education institutions are using a range of digital services to predict and promote student success by tracking attendance and other metrics.
And all of this sharenting is perfectly legal. The United States does not have any federal law that provides comprehensive protection for youth data privacy. Our legal system permits parents to share their kids’ private data, unless doing so would violate criminal law or another law of general applicability. Despite its name, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) doesn’t provide blanket protection for kids’ online privacy because it doesn’t apply when parents share personal information about their kids—only when kids under 13 share personal information about themselves.
Parents can put videos of their kids in swimsuits on YouTube and post personal information (like age and residence) on social media. These types of legal parental activities put kids at risk of physical harm (such as from an abuser who locates them in real life) and financial harm (from identity theft and credit fraud). The privacy policies of most tech providers are opaque and subject to change, so even parents who try to parse the fine print before hitting “accept” are unlikely to find that they are on the receiving end of much, if any, privacy protection.
Ultimately, we limit the potential for our kids to discover who they are and grow up into the people they’re meant to be.”
When we lose control of the private details of our children’s lives, we expose our kids to potential embarrassment when they grow up and see the rants we posted about toilet training them; we shape our kids’ reputations when other people learn personal information about them; we expose our kids to adults who might want to harm them. Ultimately, we limit the potential for our kids to discover who they are and grow up into the people they’re meant to be when we pour out information that can be aggregated, analyzed, and acted upon by schools, employers, and other institutions, both now and in the future.
The values of play, forget, connect, and respect can orient you as you navigate the sharenting terrain. Here are how those values might guide us to make more privacy-protecting daily tech choices.
Play: Your kids need protected space for experimentation, to make mischief and mistakes, and grow up stronger for having done so. To give your kids a childhood and an adolescence that honors this process of self-discovery, you need to set up spaces for your kids where they are not being exposed digitally. When your kids are clowning around, resist the urge to put videos of their antics on YouTube.
Forget: When your kids inevitably mess up, or simply go through a life stage that may be embarrassing to them later, they deserve the space to learn from it and move past it. To make it possible for them to have a “right to be forgotten,” you can’t rely on the legal system. Instead, think about what you can do—like clean up your social media accounts at least annually—to help the digital world forget about them a bit.
When we focus on direct human connection instead of digital connection, we’re deepening both interpersonal relationships and individual privacy.”
Connect: When we turn to an AI-enhanced nanny for an unhappy baby or a surveillance app for an unruly teen, we’re bypassing human interactions for digital ones. We’re also giving these digital tools large amounts of sensitive data. When we focus on direct human connection instead of digital connection, we’re deepening both interpersonal relationships and individual privacy. Avoid replacing human interactions with robotic ones for very young children, and avoid monitoring children of any age through surveillance tech.
Respect: When we “sharent,” we are effectively paying for free or low-cost digital tech with our children’s data. To put it in transactional terms, we’re not getting a good deal for our kids in selling out their privacy. If we can value their privacy more highly, we can drive a better bargain on their behalf. We can try to purchase goods that are actually privacy-protecting, even if we have to pay more in dollars. And, recognizing that this choice is not financially feasible for many, we can all lend our voices to demanding that privacy-protecting tech is sold at an affordable price.
To practice safe sharenting, identify which of your behaviors are most troubling to your kids or to you, as compared to the values you want in your home. For example, when your child is doing something they wouldn’t do in public, keep that experience private. And if it’s something you wouldn’t say to your child’s face, don’t post it.
Put your personal sharenting map in writing. Check in with your spouse, friends, family members, and, above all, your kids themselves to stay on track. Check in with your own childhood self. If we remember the value of a “world . . . made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust,” as J.M. Barrie wrote, we can become the gatekeepers of childhood and adolescence our kids need us to be.
Leah Plunkett is the author of Sharenthood: Why We Should Think Before We Talk About Our Kids Online. She is also a faculty associate with the Youth & Media team at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, associate professor at University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law, and a mother of two.