Last week, I posted a photograph of myself with my then newborn daughter, both of us half asleep, to Instagram, where I have 187,000 followers. In terms of cracking open a discussion on child online safety, I know I’m not coming to the digital party from a position of strength (that photo was liked more than 15,000 times); it’s on par with The Cookie Monster analysing the negative impact of sugar in our diets.
But the politics of sharenting — whether or not to upload images of your children online, particularly before their being old enough to consent to it — are becoming increasingly complicated, not least given a new report, which says that, by the age of 13, the average child has more than 1,000 pictures of themselves on the internet.
The majority of these will have presumably been shared by their well-meaning parents. While the figures, released by Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, in support of Duty of Care campaign don’t surprise me, they would utterly shock my parents.
I began posting photos of my daughters right after their births, wanting to update those close to me easily and quickly as possible with how my girls were getting on. I’d share images of myself breastfeeding; of us on holiday or playing at home on the sofa.
But in the five years since my first was born, my attitude to sharenting has changed: When the children started school, I stopped posting pictures of their faces and, as of November 2016, created pseudonyms for them to add anonymity. This has, in part, been down to the fact that my social media channels have now become my business and blog, Mother Pukka, and led to a best-selling book, Parenting the S*** out of Life.
The site is a digital place to discuss parenthood, of which my own experiences must play a part, but I am increasingly conscious of how my girls will feel when they’re old enough to understand the posts that involve them.
These quandaries are faced by many in my peer group of 30 and 40-something parents. Most of us began uploading baby photos five or ten years ago to small internet circles without any real thought to the future. But the cultlike following that many “mummy bloggers” have accrued, and the ever-expanding reach these pictures have, does raise questions — and, increasingly, disagreements — about safety.
There’s no getting away from the fact that our little ones’ lives are entirely dominated by technology — yesterday’s news of £1,500 (Dh7,170) cots fitted with iPads seemed to confirm that these days, a digital footprint begins all but immediately after birth.
And it often feels as though the decision whether to sharent or not has become another stick to beat mothers with (this is rarely the case for fathers, like my husband, who posts as Papa Pukka and receives a fraction of the abuse I do), and there’s a sense we should feel deep shame over our online habits.
It’s true that when I had a smaller following, I shared more. But, while we can take steps to keep our children safe (I never reveal their school address or uniform, consider what potential bullies might be able to use as ammunition, restrict the frequency with which I post about them and use a black-and-white filter, which experts say is less appealing to predators, as precautions), ultimately if somebody wants to take a child off a street they will — Instagram or not.
Like all parents, I’ve made mistakes, just like my own made mistakes with me. And yes, I still ask myself, just before pressing the share button, whether seeing this post could cause my girls sadness, anger or frustration.
But I think we should be more realistic about such fears — after all, a simple photo of your child where the subtext is “I love you” may embarrass them down the line, but no more than a public declaration from my parents did when I was a young teenager. And while I realise sharing it publicly is a different matter, every child will have a digital footprint, so it’s not like their peers won’t be in the same position.
When it comes to protecting those we love, especially in the largely untrodden digital world, there are always shifting parameters. But nobody knows their children better than parents, and ultimately, whether we choose to post about them online isn’t something we should be chastised for.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2018
Anna Whitehouse is a noted columnist and blogger.