Are You Guilty of ‘Oversharenting’? Why We Owe Our Kids Online Privacy

Everyone is a publisher, so parents run the risk of revealing too much about their children online

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We parenting writers sometimes make revelations about our children in the hope that we can find a connection with our readers. By nudging open the door to our private world and showing you a little of what’s inside, we hope you’ll reward our honesty with that nectar of the human heart: understanding.

Thus have I written online about the exaltations and lamentations of parenthood: potty training, ruined sleep, baffling toddler backchat. In turn, my confessionals have been rewarded with insight and sweet understanding from strangers like you.

So far, so benign — writing about one’s life can be a beguiling business. But can that honesty go too far?

The answer is yes if you measure the scorn heaped upon oversharing mom bloggers. Think of the hellfire rained upon the mom who confessed to liking her son more than her daughter, or at the writer who displayed her daughter’s weight problems for Vogue. How about the painfully delicate affair of the mom who compared her teen to Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook school shooter?

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About that latter case, Slate’s Hanna Rosin observed with cringe-inducing crispness: “We have of course gotten used to mommy bloggers embarrassing their children.” Clearly, writers deemed to have gone TMI about their children will be swiftly and decisively slammed.

But even if you don’t blog about your kids, can you still be accused of pimping their privacy for clicks? Maybe — if you post about them on Facebook, Tumblr or Instagram. Indeed, according to the Pew Research Center, 69% of online adults use social networking sites and, as Caroline Knorr, parenting editor of Common Sense Media, an organization that provides guidance about the media’s role in children’s lives, notes: “Everyone’s a publisher now.”

Thus, on a daily basis, we stumble across poignant anecdotes, candid photos and frank posts about how our friends really feel about their kids that day. I suspect that most parents (over)share on social media for the same reasons that bloggers do — to make connections, to elicit sympathy, to make their audience laugh. Yet while the most egregious cases might be skewered on STFU Parents, a crowd-sourcing website for the worse cases of parental TMI, the rest of us are left to navigate the puzzle of online privacy for ourselves. Should our parenting personas be like overly chipper Christmas letters, or should they reflect the true, imperfect us?

Steven Leckart, a correspondent for Wired and father to an infant son, vowed to steer through this conundrum the purist way: by keeping all information about his baby off Facebook. In an article he wrote for the Wall Street Journal, he noted “the tendency for parents to share a lot of information and photos of their kids online” and coined the word oversharenting to describe that parental impulse to publish. By keeping his son’s cyberslate clean, Leckart hopes to avoid creating the “digital legacy” that an increasing number of kids will have before they’ve even left their cribs.

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Going old school on new media may protect his son from other dangers too. According to Experian Consumer Services, provider of the SafetyWeb product that protects children’s online reputations, ID theft could become easier thanks to oversharing parents. Ken Chaplin, a senior vice president at Experian, said the latest figures from the Federal Trade Commission estimate that as many as 10 million people per year have their identities stolen. All a fraudster needs is a child’s name, birth date and address — details that can be cherry-picked off unsecured social-media profiles — and they can commit identify theft that won’t be discovered until the child is much older.

Of course, oversharenting can also damage children’s pride and reputation, which could wreak havoc on a sensitive teen’s social life. Moreover, gabbing publicly about the missteps of your teenager can be dangerous if you want them to get into college or be employed. SafetyWeb quotes studies to show that admissions officers and hiring managers regularly research their potential candidates online. “There’s a longevity to this information,” Chaplin warned, and though teens are most often responsible for sullying their own cyber-reps, unwise parents can play a role too.

So should we take kid-talk offline, lest we risk oversharenting? While Leckart told me he’s happy with his decision, I admit I’d be bereft if all my friends followed suit. Fortunately, they don’t have to because many social-media sites offer shades of intimacy via private groups, tools that Leckart, Chaplin and Knorr thought were useful for parents online. “But stay vigilant,” said Chaplin, “because what you thought was private now may not be in the future.”

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“And remember,” said Knorr, “none of those companies are in the business of protecting your kids. That’s your job.”

For content creators of all stripes, Knorr had some other useful advice too. Bloggers could gain their children’s consent before publishing and younger kids could be protected with pseudonyms. Anyone hitting the Post button should be aware that you can’t predict audience reaction and that negative online commentary can wield a great deal of psychic power. (As a writer, I can certainly attest to that.) So tread cautiously when writing about other people, Knorr advised, especially when that other person is your child.

Finally, she urged us to consider why we’d need to share anything of a deeply personal nature about our kids. Common Sense Media always tells kids: self-reflect before you self-reveal.

That’s sound advice for parents with an urge to publish too, whether on blogs, Facebook or in those suspiciously breezy Christmas letters.