It’s a simple fact that social media has its benefits—whether you’re updating faraway friends and family on your toddler’s latest antics, connecting with your favorite mom group about a park playdate or checking what flavors that cute donut shop in the city has on tap this weekend. It can be a powerful tool for connection and community, but it’s not without its privacy risks.
And now, how you use social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook and TikTok—and whether you use them to share photos of your kids—may provide clues to your parenting style, one study shows.
Repercussions of ‘sharenting’
The act of sharing photos of your children online without their explicit consent is termed ‘sharenting’, and has been a source of controversy in recent years, write the study authors, a team of researchers from the University of Central Florida (UCF) and Indiana University Bloomington.
They discovered that parents who regularly post photos of their children on social media tend to be more permissive, often associated with having a more friend-like parenting style. They also found that permissive parenting tends to be associated with earlier social media usage in kids.
The research was published in the journal Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction and comprised survey results of 493 parents who identified as regular social media users and have kids under age 10.
Participants in the study were asked to answer a range of survey questions focused on how comfortable they are sharing their kids’ photos online, whether they ask their child for permission before sharing and how comfortable they felt about strangers viewing their photos of their children.
Then they were asked to answer questions about their parenting style, such as whether they explain their reasoning behind certain parenting expectations to their children, whether they ignore bad behavior and whether they take their child’s wishes into consideration before asking them to do something.
And what they found was a strong link between parents who regularly shared their child’s photos on social media and a more permissive, friend-like parenting style.
“We were surprised,” says Mary Jean Amon, an assistant professor in the School of Modeling, Simulation, and Training (SMST) at UCF and one of the researchers on the study, in a statement. “Contrary to previous research that highlights the significant benefits of parental sharing, our study reveals that such sharing of children’s photos is associated with permissive parenting styles. That means parental sharing is linked to those parents having more friend-like relationships with their children and offering less guidance than other parents. Notably, permissive parenting has been linked to problematic internet usage among children.”
Signing on early
Parents’ frequent usage of social media may also be associated with kids creating social media accounts at younger ages, the study authors found. All platforms have a minimum age limit of 13, but have only weak verification systems to safeguard access, which means kids are often signing on much earlier.
One-third of parents with kids ages 7 to 9 report that their children use social media apps like YouTube or TikTok on their phones or tablets, according to the 2021 C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health.
The minimum age limits are designed to protect children’s privacy, but the researchers speculate that parental sharing might actually desensitize children to sharing their own information even more down the line. While more research is needed in this area, it brings up questions over how best to protect kids’ privacy and keep them safe.
Parents who share their kids' photos may also underestimate privacy risks. “Our findings also suggest that parents do not strongly differentiate between parental sharing and general photo sharing on social media, and may therefore underestimate the unique risks of sharing children’s photos online,” the study authors write.
But the job shouldn't just fall to parents. Tech companies need to offer more stringent limits and privacy protection for younger kids, as well as making parental controls easier to use, because its clear that social media already plays a big part in our daily lives—and is only going to become more prevalent in the future.
“There is no doubt that many parents are very careful regarding what they share online about their children,” says Amon. “And there are significant benefits to sharing photos with grandparents and groups who can offer support and help keep families connected. But we need to be aware of some of the privacy issues when sharing children’s information online and conduct further research to figure out long-term impacts. This is all still so new. We’re still learning.”
Amon, MJ, Kartvelishvili N, Bertenthal BI, Hugenberg K, Kapadia A. Sharenting and Children’s Privacy in the United States: Parenting Style, Practices, and Perspectives on Sharing Young Children’s Photos on Social Media. 2022. PACM on Human-Computer Interaction, 6;CSCW1, Article 116.