A CONVERSATION WITH STACEY STEINBERG
You don’t have to be a genius to realise that social media has become incredibly popular. And, despite the growing concerns about its often sinister influence (see Netflix’s eye-opening documentary ‘The Social Dilemma’), it looks like social media’s here to stay. The marketing website Oberlo.com recently reported that “Data collected during the coronavirus pandemic showed significant changes in social media behaviour. As people worked from home, and shifted both their professional and personal lives online, social media usage increased dramatically.”
So, just how popular is it?
- There are currently 3.5 billion social media users worldwide.
- Facebook is the most popular social media platform.
- 90.4% of Millennials, 77.5% of Generation X, and 48.2% of Baby Boomers are active social media users.
- Users spend an average of 3 hours per day on social networks and messaging.
- 500 million Instagram stories are uploaded daily worldwide.
The message is clear: social media isn’t going away any time soon. So the challenge we all face is; how can we manage our online activities – and our family’s online activities?
As you’ve probably already discovered, that’s easier said than done! But, thankfully, there are experts at hand to help calm the confusion and give great advice. One of those is Stacey Steinberg. Author of ‘Growing Up Shared’, Stacey’s a law professor, a lawyer and a mother. And her years of research have given her a keen insight into ways parents can best use social media and protect their families from its worst effects.
GRAPEVINE: In your book, you talk about ‘sharenting’ – the balancing-act that parents face trying to decide when, how, and how much to share about their kids online. Can you tell us more about ‘sharenting’? And how does our sharing online affect our kids?
STACEY STEINBERG: Sharenting is the intersection between parents doing what they’ve always done – sharing their pride and joy (their kids!) – and posting them on social media platforms. It’s the new way that parents share. And it can affect our children’s sense of wellbeing both now and years into the future.
For example, our kids might see us sharing all the time, and feel embarrassed or shamed by the information that we’re making public. Or they might feel frustrated that, instead of spending time with them, we’re forever taking ourselves out of the ‘moment’ to post online.
Older kids might feel nervous about how the information we share today could affect them in the future. Their peers could see it … universities and prospective employers could see it. And they might even be worried about the potential for identity theft, or the information being used in some negative, unhealthy way.
As parents we must realise that, when we’re sharing online about our families, we’re creating our children’s digital footprint, too.
GV: You make the point that it’s not just what we share online about our kids, but how we share …
STACEY: We need to think about how we share, and whether our practice of posting lines up with our values and hopes. What do we value about privacy, for instance? How do we want our kids to post online when they’re old enough? We should also think about when we’re sharing. Is it worth stepping away from our child to document a moment right here and now? Are we then constantly checking for feedback and ‘likes’? And how does that align with the commonly-held parenting goal of being present with our children?
It’s also useful to think about why we share. I suspect that many of us share simply because others do, and we haven’t stopped to consider what our motivations are. Is it to stay connected with friends and family? Is it to make new friends and become part of new communities? Is it to try and make money somehow through sharing information (as some do, earning their living through blogging and YouTube, for instance)?
There’s power in sharing our stories. But there are also ways for people to gain financially by doing so, and we should be mindful of who might be taking advantage of that.
GV: The negative sides of sharing online are fairly well documented – but what are some of the positives?
STACEY: I got into this work because, along with being a law professor and a former child-abuse prosecutor, I’d found my way into photography. After my second son was born, I realised that I loved taking pictures – and part of being an artist is sharing your work. I saw how much joy it brought to share photos of my own kids and of other families.
Then I got into a charity called the Shared Hope Project at our local hospital, where I’d offer a free photography service to families with children battling chronic medical conditions. Through that work, I saw how (when parents shared openly) they could really form personal connections, despite being in a hospital room. It also helped them stay connected with friends and family back home.
I think that if we stop sharing our stories and telling our narratives, part of the richness of life is lost. A lot of positive social change happens because people are brave and bold enough to be vulnerable online. And, by the way, when we talk about why people share – that’s another reason; to try to bring issues that are important to them into the light.
GV: So how can we share our stories while, at the same time, honouring our children’s privacy – and perhaps their wish to be kept out of the limelight?
STACEY: Well, first off, the most important thing we can do is spend more time thinking about it. We’re the first generation of parents to be raising kids alongside social media – and our kids are the first generation to grow up being ‘shared’. In a lot of ways, we’ve kind of rushed the thinking process in order to get busy sharing. So we probably need to slow down, back up a bit, and actually listen to the voices of people we respect. And, as parents, we need to make this a more central part of our childrearing conversation.
We should think more carefully about what’s being gained or lost as a result of each ‘disclosure’ that we post online – recognising the benefits, but also the risks. The trouble is, you can’t put the genie back into the bottle! Once the information’s out there, it’s tough to regain control of the narrative or take back what’s been shared.
GV: There’s lots of debate about social media. And in your book you refer to four different approaches. Can you tell us about these?
STACEY: In a study of young Danish families, researcher Maja Sonne Damkjær identified four social media communication styles. They are: family-focused … peer group-focused … oppositional … and social media non-user. The first group – Family Focused – are those who go onto social media to connect with people they know in real life. Their use of social media is to enhance those connections.
The next category – Peer-Group Focused – are those who use social media to access help or advice, especially when they have young children. Parents will often connect with others who have similar struggles: feeding issues, sleep issues, and so forth. And as their kids grow, they’ll find help and support with other issues as well.
The third group – Oppositional – are on social media but choose to never share about their kids online. And they have a real disdain for people who do. They’ll make a point of not only not sharing, but also stating their opinion that other parents shouldn’t share about their kids either!
And then there are those – Social Media Non-Users – who stay away entirely. In my experience, these aren’t parents with really strong views about children’s privacy. They just recognise that, for them, social media adds little or no benefit to their lives, so they just avoid it altogether.
GV:For those parents who do use social media, is there any general agreement about “no-no’s” – and about what constitutes ‘over-sharenting’?
STACEY:Absolutely! And the “no-no’s” are becoming more universal. Things like sharing your child’s full name, or full date-of-birth would be oversharing … disclosing details about your child’s location, schedule, school, and so forth on a public site is probably unwise … sharing embarrassing or personal details about your kids outside of closed forums, likewise … attaching pictures of school location or other identifying details … and, of course, photos of your kids in the nude …
We know that paedophiles take advantage of photos that people share. And, according to a study done by the Australian Safety Commissioner, 50 percent of all images on paedophile image-sharing sites are innocent pictures of kids that originated on family blogs and family social media sites. Parents need to know that there’s a market for stolen images of kids, so they should avoid posting any pictures of children in any state of undress.
Parents should also be very aware of the privacy policies of the sites on which they’re sharing. Just because you’re sharing in a closed group doesn’t mean that someone can’t screenshot it or take advantage of it, or use it in a way you haven’t intended. And I think that giving older kids veto power – the chance to say “No, I don’t want you to post that!” – is really critical. Of course, younger kids can’t really consent, but we can empower them to be part of that discussion.
There’s no point pretending that social media doesn’t exist – and having our kids grow up wanting to use it but not knowing how. So I try really hard to have conversations about this with my kids. Even with my youngest, I ask her if she’s okay with me sharing a photo before I put it online. She usually is, but it’s just about her recognising (although she’s only seven) that she has an ownership over what’s shared about her.
My middle son is a competitive gymnast, so he works out a lot – and he loves it when I share videos from his events with family and friends. In fact, he’ll check up on me and make sure I’ve done it – because he’s proud of what he’s doing, and he likes his coaches and others to see. So with him, I’ve discussed things like privacy concerns. If any other kids might be seen in the video, is it okay with them (and their parents) if that’s being shared? I also encourage him to read the comments that other people leave – and respond to them. It helps him understand the vast audience who might see these videos.
I also delete the videos a month or two later – because there’s no need to have all that data out there online.
I actually make it a yearly habit to review my posts, and delete (or make private) those which no longer feel right to share with a wider audience. I think our kids are going to want to define themselves online on their own terms – and anything we can do to make that easier for them is important.
GV: Has any research been done to indicate how children feel when their parents share details about them online?
STACEY: Interestingly enough, the research indicates that most kids are okay with their parents sharing photos of them – as long as the photos aren’t embarrassing or unflattering! But children do want their parents to ask permission before going ahead and posting photos of them online.
Parents need to invite their kids into the decision-making process when they share family stuff on social media. Children need their voices heard – they need to be part of the conversation. And they need to have their individual desires for privacy respected.
Generally speaking, kids feel like there’s a lot of emphasis on what they do on social media. They don’t understand why there are so many rules for them and so few for their parents – they want their parents to have more rules to follow. As early as age nine or ten, kids can feel apprehensive about what their parents are posting. They can be embarrassed, anxious, or even angry.
GV: What’s the best way to give our children a say in how and what we share about them?
STACEY: I think the conversation should evolve over time. When they’re really little, you could gauge their emotional response by asking, “Is this something you want Grandma and Grandpa to see?” or “Do you want me to tell your friends that this happened?” A child having a meltdown might be adorable to that child’s parent (once their little guy has calmed down!) – but that same little guy would probably see a photo of the event and feel embarrassed.
We need to try and see the information that we’re sharing through the eyes of a child. If we can do that, we can still share compelling stories and stay in touch with family and friends – but we’ll be doing it in a way that respects who our child is now and who they’ll be in the future. And as they get older, that conversation becomes more advanced.
GV: Earlier, you mentioned shame and embarrassment as big issues in ‘sharenting’. Can you explain why parents need to be more aware of this?
STACEY: Obviously, kids can experience shame when their parents use social media to share photos the kids find embarrassing. But some parents actively shame kids by deliberately sharing their bad behaviour online – and this can seriously damage the parent-child relationship and the child’s self-esteem.
I’m a lawyer in the youth court system as part of my day job, and the big focus of juvenile delinquency law is to rehabilitate kids. Yes, there’s a punishment aspect – but the real goal is to help them. And I don’t think it’s at all helpful when parents shame their kids online.
Kids can also feel ashamed when they share something online that their parents then censor! When I was a young child, I made a lot of mistakes that my parents didn’t know about! But the response from my peers (or whoever was around me) was enough to help me learn my lesson and self-correct – without input from my parents!
It worries me that, in this age of us trying to control or protect our kids online, kids have lost the ability to make some mistakes without experiencing the shame and embarrassment of their parents seeing it. Certainly, there are times that shame is a helpful tool to change behaviour! And, there are times when it’s absolutely appropriate to intervene (such as when your child’s posted something inappropriate or compromising). But in an age (especially during this pandemic) when many kids around the world are NOT able to interact face-to-face, their text messages and social media feeds are often the only way they can communicate with their peers.
We don’t want to make them feel so censored by us that they can’t speak freely and naturally with their friends.
GV: Getting that balance right is harder than it sounds – right? Preserving both connectedness between parents and teens and autonomy for the teens themselves. How can we do both well?
STACEY: I think that we have to ask the social media industry to offer more protections for kids. I’d be happier giving my 10-year-old autonomy with YouTube if I didn’t have to worry that he was going to come across pornography or be targeted with political ads. It would be a lot easier to give our kids some breathing space if the system created a safer playground.
There’s also the issue of who can share things about kids on social media. There have been recent cases in the US involving grandparents sharing without the parents’ permission – and the courts have had to weigh in!
GV: It’s not just grandparents, of course. Other people – friends, and even community groups, such as schools, churches, and athletic clubs – can post information or pictures that identify our children. How can parents take charge of what others share?
STACEY: Parents need to be willing to use their voice and express their opinions. If you don’t feel comfortable with what’s being shared, you need to tell the people who associate with your kids how you feel. And, you have a right to have those opinions respected. Ultimately, we’re the guardians – we’re the gatekeepers of our children’s personal information and digital footprint. And just like we decide how to discipline our kids (within certain limits), we also decide how we share our family. There are, of course, extremes that need to be regulated, but in general, the parents should be able to make those decisions.
It’s like I said earlier. We need to put more responsibility onto social media companies – and onto society as a whole – to recognise that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. We should be asking these questions as part of any conversation before we place our kids in somebody else’s care. Even things like birthday parties! If you have a pool party for your child, and everyone’s in their togs gathering around the child blowing out the candles, there’s a good chance that a number of those parents wouldn’t be comfortable with that picture being posted online. But it’s also very possible that some of those parents have never even considered that someone would be uncomfortable with sharing that image.
We’re not yet talking about it enough – but we need to have those conversations.
GV: So how can families go about creating a plan with their kids for using social media?
STACEY: Any plan you choose first involves sitting down together and hearing what everyone has to say – and then committing to some concrete guidelines that the family will act on. Things like, “We’re not going to have phones at the dinner table …” or “We’ll always ask before we share pictures of other people …” or “We understand that our parents have the right to search our phones at any time while we’re under 18 …”
Most parents, understandably, want to monitor their kids. But we don’t want to make them feel like they’ve done something wrong – or like they’re constantly being watched – or like we’re just waiting for them to screw up. Neither do we want them to feel the world is so dangerous that we have to be looking over their shoulder all the time.
When kids are young, we need to supervise them closely. We’re not punishing them – we’re just being wise parents. However, as our kids get older and demonstrate proficiency in social media, we need to give them some freedom, while continuing the conversation: why it’s hard for us to let go of that control, what sort of things we’ll be looking out for that would raise red flags for us, what would make us begin monitoring them again. Ultimately, they need to be allowed to grow and learn and make their own mistakes, within reason.
GV: Any closing words for our readers?
STACEY: I’ve found that, because I’ve spent so much time thinking about these issues (as a lawyer and as a mum), I can get pretty torn up trying to make choices around my own online sharing and my own family’s use of social media. Even though I’ve spent all these years studying ‘sharenting’, it doesn’t mean that I’m any better at actually sharing than the general population!
People call me a social media expert, but I’m quick to acknowledge that I don’t have all this figured out – it’s a tough thing to navigate as a parent!
But we have to give ourselves grace … acknowledge when we’ve made mistakes … and take advantage of opportunities to learn from them. We make the best decisions we can with the information we have, but we have to be willing to take on new information and grow in our approach to how, what, when, and why we share online.
Maya Angelou once said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” I think that’s a wise approach to social media – and to life in general.
FIND OUT MORE ABOUT STACEY STEINBERG AT WWW.STACEYSTEINBERG.COM – HER BOOK ‘GROWING UP SHARED’ CAN BE FOUND AT ALL GOOD BOOK SELLERS.