The real problem with posting about your kids online

In a recent essay published in The Washington Post, a mother explained her decision to continue writing essays and blog posts about her daughter even after the girl had protested. The woman said that while she felt bad, she was “not done exploring my motherhood in my writing.”

One commentor criticized parents like the essay’s author for having “turned their family’s daily dramas into content.” Another said the woman’s essay surfaces a “nagging – and loaded – question among parents in the age of Instagram. … Are our present social media posts going to mortify our kids in the future?”

These questions are valid, and I’ve published research about the need for parents to steward their children’s privacy online. I agree with critics who accuse the woman of being tone-deaf to her child’s concerns.

However, I believe the broader criticism of parents and their social media behavior is misplaced.

I’ve been studying this topic – sometimes called “sharenting”for six years. Too often, public discourse pits parents against children. Parents, critics say, are being narcissistic by blogging about their kids and posting their photos on Facebook and Instagram; they’re willing to invade their child’s privacy in exchange for attention and likes from their friends. So the story goes.

But this parent-versus-child framing obscures a bigger problem: the economic logic of social media platforms that exploit users for profit.

A natural impulse

Despite the heated responses sharenting can evoke, it’s nothing new. For centuries, people have recorded daily minutiae in diaries and scrapbooks. Products like baby books explicitly invite parents to log information about their children.

Communication scholar Lee Humphreys sees the impulse parents feel to document and share information about their kids as a form of “media accounting.” Throughout their lives, people occupy many roles – child, spouse, parent, friend, colleague. Humphreys argues that one way to perform these roles is by documenting them. Looking back on these traces can help people shape a sense of self, construct a coherent life story and feel connected to others.

To share photographs of your kids is to be human. pxhere
If you’ve ever thumbed through an old yearbook, a grandparent’s travel photos or a historical figure’s diary, you’ve looked at media accounts. Same if you’ve scrolled through a blog’s archives or your Facebook Timeline. Social media may be fairly new, but the act of recording everyday life is age-old.

Writing about family life online can help parents express themselves creatively and connect with other parents. Media accounting can also help people make sense of their identities as a parent. Being a parent – and seeing yourself as a parent – involves talking and writing about your children.

Surveillance capitalism enters the equation

Framed this way, it becomes clear why telling parents to stop blogging or posting about their children online is a challenging proposition. Media accounting is central to people’s social lives, and it’s been happening for a long time.