More and more parents are posting and sharing information about their children online, in a trend known as ‘sharenting’.
According to the American research company Dscout, we touch our smartphones 2,617 times a day, on average. Meanwhile, Rescue Time found that three hours and 15 minutes is the average time spent on our phones every day.
Most of this time is likely to involve browsing social media, including scrolling endless Instagram feeds or watching videos on TikTok. For many, social media has become the most popular way to kill time, especially for Generation Z. However, in this hyper-connected world, social media represents a concrete threat, especially to children.
The toxic diet culture, the perpetuation of body stereotypes, and the normalization of privilege such as ignoring inequalities or flaunting luxury and extravagant experiences are problematic trends commonly encountered on social media platforms.
However, it is essential to shift our focus to an issue that often goes unnoticed: the overexposure of children on social media platforms. This phenomenon extends beyond simply sharing a few pictures of a child’s birthday celebration and instead encompasses excessive and unregulated almost-daily exposure of children filmed in all kinds of everyday activities, such as when they laugh, cry, or act out a script, all seasoned with hashtags like #adv, #gifted, #sponsoredby, as well as affiliate links.
This practice of ‘sharenting’ consists of parents posting sensitive information about their children online. These child celebrities create engagement, and, with their presence, the content might receive more likes, comments, and shares. This is due to the emotional appeal, the cuteness factor, and the relatability. However, leveraging children for likes, followers, and ultimately sponsorships may be legal but is far from ethical.
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Privacy and online safety are central to this debate. Children are having their personal information shared online, without their consent, and this will remain online for years, long after they have grown up.
Moreover, they could potentially fall victim to scams, cyberbullying, and stalking. Many influencer parents may not fully grasp the long-term consequences of overexposing their children on social media platforms. Indeed, it is extremely challenging to track the spread of the posted content or remove it entirely.
Sharenting and children’s safety in the digital landscape
While laws generally emphasize the significance of informed consent, transparency, and protecting privacy rights, these principles are sometimes overlooked in the context of parents and children.
For example, in 2022, the band Nirvana won a lawsuit over the iconic album cover of ‘Nevermind’, which featured a naked baby swimming underwater. The now-adult Spencer Elden claimed that the image constituted child pornography and caused him distress. The judge eventually ruled in favour of the band, stating that the image was protected as artistic expression under the First Amendment.
In general, misinformation and online content are controversial and elusive areas to regulate. In the European Union, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) includes provisions to protect children’s personal data, while the UK government has introduced the Online Safety Bill, which will make social media companies legally responsible for keeping children and young people safe online. This latter regulation requires social media platforms to carry out risk assessments on the dangers their sites pose to children but does not act on parents directly.
In the United States, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) establishes rules for websites and online services to protect the privacy of children under the age of 13. But again, COPPA requires third parties to obtain parental consent for the collection of personal information from children, while parents themselves are not subjected to any specific requirements in this regard.
Not all is lost, however. In 2020, France passed a law to protect ‘child influencers’ on social media, aiming at providing a legal framework for their activities on YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, and other online platforms. This is the first step to address this regulatory gap. The ‘sharenting’ trend is crying out for ad-hoc regulations that are valid across countries and jurisdictions, that address parental actions and ensure children’s safety in the digital realm.