When it comes to 'sharenting,' new parents are divided over online footprints

Pop singer Beyoncé's recent choice to share a photo of her twin babies on Instagram highlights a debate among parents who were raised on digital media about how much to reveal about their children online. 

Brandon Wade/AP
Reality TV couple and new parents Sean and Catherine Lowe revealed son Samuel's chic nursery at their new home in Dallas in 2016. The couple made a deal with a laundry detergent company to share memories from their first year of parenthood on the brand's social channels. In the age of Instagram, parents have mixed opinions about how much of their children's information to share online.

Two million likes in the first hour. Even for Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, that is an impressive rate. 

One week ago, Ms. Knowles-Carter announced the birth of her twins with husband Jay-Z on Instagram, and the photo has since amassed more than 9.8 million likes. Knowles-Carter, arguably the most famous pop star in the world, frequently posts photos of her family on social media. Her Instagram post announcing her pregnancy on Feb. 1 is currently the most-liked photo on Instagram with 11.1 million likes

But a friend of Beyoncé’s and fellow star, Blake Lively, has taken a different approach to fame and motherhood. Ms. Lively’s two daughters with husband Ryan Reynolds are absent from the actress’ Instagram account and the private couple made their first and only public appearance as a family in December. 

Beyoncé and Lively are public figures, but their differing stances on motherhood and social media reflect a debate that goes beyond Hollywood.    

“[T]hey represent two very different ways of parenting in the digital age when it comes to Instagram and an image-based social network,” says Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist and author of the book, "The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age." 

Increasingly, young mothers across the United States have strong opinions on “sharenting.” Those who favor using Instagram say the platform is a great way to share everything from first steps to zoo visits with distant family and creates a living photo album for their child to look back on. Those who oppose online sharing say it invades their child’s privacy with unknown future implications. 

Mothers on both sides of the debate, though, cite relationship-building as one main reason behind their “sharenting” stance. Some find camaraderie through new virtual friendships, while others choose to deepen existing relationships through face-to-face sharing.

“At their best, the motives are similar. It’s to connect, to share, to be known, to be seen, to have a sense that you are not alone,” says Dr. Steiner-Adair. “But the medium that you use to nourish those appetites for connection can vary widely.”

The Beyoncés

Samantha Eason, a mom in her mid-20s from St. Louis, says she went through a hard time after the birth of her son Isaac. 

“My husband lost his job, all my friends were on the East Coast, and I felt really isolated,” says Ms. Eason. But building an online community with her 12,700 Instagram followers – some of them also young moms – helped.

According to a 2015 poll by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, 72 percent of parents say social media helps them feel not alone. And a Pew Research report from July 2015 found this sentiment was much stronger among mothers: 80 percent of mothers say they receive parenting support from social media, compared to 65 percent of fathers. 

Dani Nemeh is one of the friends Eason has made on Instagram. Ms. Nemeh, a young mom from Orlando, Fla., similarly credits her 66,000 followers with helping her through parenting struggles such as morning sickness or the sleeping patterns of her 2-year-old son Charlie. 

“They will offer me advice from the most loving place,” says Nemeh. “It’s nice you can be there for someone who is going through something, even if we have not met.”

The Blakes

Many parents, however, have concerns about online sharing. The poll from C.S. Mott Children's Hospital also found that 68 percent of parents worry their posts share private information about their child. 

“The teacher in me always thinks, you need to be the biggest advocate for your child,” says Julia, a mom from Boston who preferred to only use her first name. She does not share photos of her two daughters on Facebook or Instagram. “It all comes down to privacy and my children’s innocence… Why post them for the whole world?”

Anti-sharing moms say it can feel uncomfortable asking family or friends to avoid posting photos, and they often feel left out in their mommy-groups. But they also say being “sharenting-free” has actually helped strengthen relationships by requiring in-person sharing.

“Instagram is a great way to connect and get in touch with people,” says a young mom from Florida, also named Julia. “But I hope we stay in touch so we can get together in person, either have dinner or a playdate in real life… Hopefully we can share those moments together, face-to-face.” 

The American Academy of Pediatrics published a study in October recommending that pediatricians educate parents on the dangers of oversharing. The first “children of social media” are now entering adulthood, says lawyer Stacey Steinberg in the study’s abstract, so the future implications of parents’ digital footprints’ are still unknown.  

But a happy medium is definitely possible, says Sarah Clark, co-director of C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health. “And the first step towards that is being cognizant. It requires parents making really specific choices for their kids, and knowing that these choices may be different than the ones they would make for themselves.”

Eason, the mom from St. Louis, says she has learned to be more wary of social media posts. Instead of including specific geo-tags in posts featuring Isaac, for example, now she will now just add a generic citywide tag, or none at all.

“It is not all butterflies and rainbows on here,” says Eason. “I have to be careful.”

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