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Generation Sharent: Are Hyper-Exposed Children the Price of Social Media Fame?

Welcome to the world, Generation Z! Smile for the camera! Your childhood was hyper-exposed. Your young lives were documented via photos and videos, uploaded, shared, liked and commented upon by people you will perhaps never meet. Your parents are so proud of you, and want to share you with the world, but what does that mean for your future?

In the internet’s early years, the emphasis on child protection was placed on limiting what children could see on the internet. Now, the concern has shifted; children are a social media commodity, whether financially or simply within social groups. Their images, names, and locations are often given out freely online by parents without consideration for the potential impact on their future lives and privacy. So ubiquitous is this kind of parental oversharing that researcher Stacey B. Steinberg coined a name for it in 2016: sharenting. Steinberg explores the delicate line that exists between parents’ right to post about their lives online and a child’s need for privacy. The challenge for policy-makers and internet users alike is to decide whether a parent’s desire to share images of their child supersedes the child’s right to privacy. I contend it should not. So, what should be done? Once we can acknowledge it’s gone too far, how can we intervene?

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child recognises in article 16 the importance of a child’s right to privacy, and states

“No child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his or her honour and reputation.”

In practice, however, individual states’ laws regarding online privacy differ greatly, and most often the nuts and bolts of children’s online access and exposure are decided by the social media platforms themselves. Whether a child is able to access a platform is the purview of the platform’s terms of service, and many rightly have policies regarding gaining consent prior to the uploading of content containing children. However, parent-run social media accounts which centre much younger children are omnipresent on sites like Instagram and Youtube. Instagram and Facebook allow users to choose who sees each post, potentially limiting the audience for pictures of children. Still, this decision is left in the hands of the parents. Mandating that accounts containing the visible faces of children under thirteen – the age of use of most social media sites – must be private would better future-proof children’s privacy.

A further concern comes from ‘sharents’ who are hopeful influencers, enticed by a huge financial incentive should their child become the next internet star. Indeed, one of Youtube’s wealthiest creators of 2019 is an eight-year-old boy who rose to fame by opening children’s toys on camera. Recent discussion surrounding the responsibility of platforms to protect children from exploitation and exposure has centred around this kind of mega-famous child creator, as well as the ‘family vlogger’ genre of Youtube creators and TikTok stars. These channels, while run by adults, primarily draw audiences through filming and posting the daily experiences of their babies or children, sometimes from the second of their birth. These children, it’s unnecessary to remark, have no say in their participation, while their image is freely disseminated to millions of strangers across the globe. Few would disagree that this is a violation of their privacy, and that their parents’ actions will have a significant impact upon their future employment and, perhaps, safety.

It’s not so simple, however, to villainize every social media parent. TikTok’s Maia Knight began posting videos of her twin girls for her own enjoyment. She likely never expected to grow an audience of 7.6 million followers, who give her children affectionate pet names and call themselves the children’s collective father. While Knight could withdraw from the spotlight and take her children offline, her account is now generating enough of an income that she can remain at home with her children and set them up for a safe, financially stable life. Walking away from this kind of stability is surely not an easy task. While the concerns for the safety and privacy of these young lives remains, my ire resides with the systems that exploit us all, children and adults alike, when it comes to surviving in the digital age, rather than mothers like Knight. 

The complex problems brought about by the internet age require nuanced solutions. Ultimately, child content creators should be protected under both privacy and child labour laws in their home country. However, this would require an immense legislative overhaul, and would likely be pushed against by large and powerful corporations behind social media platforms. So what can we push for in the meantime? Many are actively campaigning for social media platforms like Youtube to demonetise content which centres children under the age of thirteen until such legislation can be created. This action would disincentivise over-exposing children for financial gain and would decrease the exploitation of children too young to give their informed consent. Many tabloid websites and magazines are opting to blur the faces of celebrity children to protect their privacy. It is not unreasonable to suggest platforms like Instagram require the same level of protection for ordinary kids in their terms of service.

Social media is real life; the images we share, information we give and discussions we have are part of our life story permanently. While parents’ desire to share the lives of their little ones are often borne out of the best intentions, a child’s right to determine the course of their lives on their own terms, on-and-offline, should take precedence.

Image: NIKON CORPORATION / Public Domain Certification via pixnio

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