Image by image, we’re collaging idealised selves for our children to live up toby Hephzibah Anderson / January 29, 2019 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2019 issue of Prospect Magazine
For most of civilisation, becoming a parent has meant muddling through as best you could. Then came the dawn of “parenting.” According to the OED, the noun first cropped up as a verb in 1918, but it took until the 1970s for it to become popular. The gender-neutral gerund has since grown to encapsulate the myriad ways in which “child care,” as the commonsensical Dr Spock always referred to it, now resembles an additional career—and one in a highly competitive field, at that.
But as a verb, parenting also does something else that its homelier antecedents like “child-rearing” didn’t. It elbows the kids out of the frame and puts the focus squarely on the parents themselves, underscoring the self-consciousness that now pervades a stage of life previous generations simply got on with. Hence the rise of the motherhood memoir and the gender reveal party. Hence “sharenting.”
A gargoyle of a word, even by the stooped standards of the portmanteau, sharenting refers, of course, to the practice of parents Instagramming their children’s infancy, blogging about their potty training, or scoring viral hits with videos of epic tantrums.
A histrionic justification
It’s not exactly a new phenomenon, but it hit a fresh low at the start of this year, when lawyer and “mommy blogger” Christie Tate wrote an essay for the Washington Post describing what happened when her 10-year-old daughter got a laptop for Christmas and discovered that her mother had been chronicling her childhood. Defiant in the face of tween outrage, the piece is a histrionic justification of Tate’s decision to blog on—albeit giving the girl some veto power.
“I’m not done exploring my motherhood in my writing,” she explained. To quit using her daughter’s life as material would be akin to “amputating parts of my experience,” and doing that, “feels as abusive to our relationship as writing about her without any consideration for her feelings and privacy.”
Leaving aside her staggering self-absorption, Tate is but an extreme example of a practice many of us dabble in. As far back as 2010, a survey found that more than 90 per cent of American two-year-olds had an online presence.
Over here, we’re divided—in 2017 Ofcom reported that 56 per cent of UK parents never post images of their children on social media. Of the rest who do, half post monthly or more—and you can bet that plenty start with antenatal scans. No wonder the Children’s Commissioner last year revealed that by their 13th birthday, the average British child will appear in more that 1,300 pictures online.
A Facebook friend of mine—I’m one of nearly 2,000 for him—has been posting a “quote of the day” from his son ever since he could form sentences. The child is now eight. Today’s feed also offered up a video of another friend’s six-year-old reading in bed, a close-up of a sleeping newborn, and someone’s son claiming his karate orange belt.
In a way, sharenting is nothing new. Parents have always bragged about their kids and given that we now post large chunks of our own lives online, why would we omit such a formative experience? Especially when it comes with gummy smiles of internet-breaking adorableness.
It’s easy to succumb to moral panic where children are concerned. Yes, sharenting raises disquieting questions about privacy, consent and the parent-child relationship. There is a gender dimension, too—women come in for more stick than men when they’re seen to be commoditising their offspring’s childhoods. But posting the occasional birthday snap to Facebook, having carefully customised your privacy settings, is clearly not the same as trying to make a brand of your progeny.
And yet, even such modestly intentioned sharing comes with risks. Image by image, we’re collaging idealised selves for our children to live up to. My “quote of the day” pal is no longer posting daily: has his son passed peak cute already, and become a has-been before he enters double digits? His likes have diminished over the years, too, which brings us to another pitfall. Surely, monitoring those thumbs-up is, to use parenting lingo, modelling behaviour that primes kids to rely on external validation?
Some of the advice for keeping your children safe online can be chilling. Try not to picture them in their school uniform, for instance, or reveal routines. As for that birthday portrait—did you post it on your child’s actual birthday? And are they, by chance, posing with a cake aglow with the correct number of candles? It all contributed to a recent forecast from Barclays suggesting that by 2030, “sharenting” will account for two-thirds of identity fraud facing young people, costing £667m per year.
As for the seemingly shameless Tate, the irony of her situation wasn’t entirely lost on her. As she explained, she’d always assumed that her first parent-child conversation about online privacy would hinge on something her daughter had posted. It seems a fair bet that in plenty of households besides Tate’s, it’s going to be the other way around.
There’s a Yiddish verb that describes the parental feeling of swelling with pride at the sight of your offspring doing good. It’s to kvell. Aptly enough for the sharenting age, it has a homonym, meaning to torture.