Social media has become an indispensable part of our lives over the past decade. The fact that companies like Facebook sell user data to make billions is common knowledge, yet it does not stop us from willingly sharing every detail of our daily lives online. This is especially true of millennials who came of age with the advent of social media and are now raising their children in the world of Instagram reels, selfies and lives.
Everything from the positive pregnancy test and the ultrasound pictures, to the video of the child’s first steps is posted on social media platforms for the whole world to see. Big moments are celebrated and the struggles are discussed in detail. ‘Sharenting’, as it is called, is supposed to bring the parents catharsis and validation, while serving as information that is comforting or even educational for followers who may be going through the same journey.
But where does the parent’s self-expression end and the child’s right to privacy begin?
Shradha Mehra Virani, 37, mother to a seven-year-old daughter and a four-year-old son, got on Instagram as a parent blogger seven years ago. Back then, her daughter was only three months old. Feeling the need for peer support as a young parent, she took to the platform to share her experiences, struggles and lessons. “But I didn’t post pictures of myself or my children until much, much later,” she says.
Over the years, Virani has gathered over 39,000 followers, hosted several offline meet-ups and built a community that she has been able to lean on. Today, she frequently collaborates with brands like Amazon, Brainsmith and Toycra; and has also started her own venture @soldresold, an online marketplace to buy and sell preloved and new products for kids. “I see the [Instagram] profile as my workplace and my children are simply my muses. I have found that posting natural, non-posed pictures and videos of them really strikes a cord with my audience,” Virani says.
Most parents don’t intend to commercialise their accounts, but start them as a way to document the whirlwind years of early childhood. Last October, Sreethu Rahul Dev, 31, a social media professional herself created a public Instagram profile for her four-year-old daughter as a “digital album” that all her family and friends can access in real time. While shared online drives might be a safer alternative to physical storage devices, this way is more convenient and fun, she says. “Moreover, dressing up and creating posts for the account has been a great way to keep the child engaged during the pandemic.”
The young mother explains that this is common in her circle. “We millennials don’t hesitate to post on social media about everywhere we go and everything we do. So this doesn’t feel like a big deal. But if my daughter grows up and has a problem with the account, I will not hesitate to delete it,” she says.
In a world where even adult users are not immune to data theft, trolling and other forms of cyber abuse, it is almost an understatement to say that children are extremely vulnerable. When asked about the ever-present threat, Dev says, “I have heard of such things happening to other accounts, but haven’t faced it myself. Since my account is still small, I’m not too worried about it.”
Virani admits to having received vicious comments from a troll account that sexualised a picture in which she was seen kissing her daughter. “Such things have happened even with celebrity parents. It is part of being in the public eye,” she reasons, adding that she has been weeding out suspicious looking accounts from her profile since then.
The fact that exposure to platforms like Instagram has made children incredibly social media savvy is something parents see as an upside. Many report that their kids are now adept at posing for pictures and selfies and can even record videos and upload them on their own. “My seven-year-old wanted to start her own YouTube channel to share her videos, but I told her she is too young for that,” says Virani. While it is impressive how quickly the little ones seem to adapt to the demands of a digital world, this may ring alarm bells for some.
Coimbatore-based psychologist, sex educator and trustee of Coimbatore Parenting Network Swati Jagdish acknowledges that overexposure to the social media rat race might lead to children losing their innate sense of originality under the pressure of constantly “creating content”.
Educational reels on her Instagram profile (@mayas_amma) frequently feature her seven-year-old daughter, Maya. “Ultimately, it is upto the parents to establish healthy boundaries for the child,” Jagdish says. “You could set aside one afternoon a week to make one video or post for social media, and refrain from making the child do anything unnatural—like dancing to hypersexual songs—for the sake of a few likes.”
Limiting the amount of time children spend on the apps, or the frequency of their exposure on them, is one way forward. But the content that goes up on these platforms will forever be part of the child’s digital footprint.
“It is worth remembering that kids are too young to consent to having their personal information put up in this manner,” says Ashna Abdul Lathif, a certified ethical hacker and a cyber security professional based in Qatar. “Today, if you have any device that is connected to the Internet, privacy is a myth. Any data we store in our devices can be stolen and any information we post online is stored in some server somewhere. While there may not be an easy workaround in terms of data storage, we can certainly keep children off social media until they are old enough for it.”