Let’s Talk about the Photos: What is “sharenthood”, what are the problems with it, and what should we do about it?

“Sharenting” can happen in any digital space where parents or other adults input youth private information. This approach subtly but fundamentally transforms childhood and adolescence from a space of play to one that has sometimes life-altering implications. Banner: Shutterstock/Nilanka Sampath
Let’s Talk about the Photos: What is “sharenthood”, what are the problems with it, and what should we do about it?
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Lucy, age 7, tells her mother that she wants to “talk about the photos” that her mother posts of her online. In their conversation, filmed by The New York Times, her mother says the photos are “cute” and asks Lucy what is “wrong” with posting them. Lucy says: “Because you didn’t ask”.

Lucy’s mother didn’t need to ask her daughter for consent to post, according to any laws on the books in the United States, where their family lives. Around the world, “sharenthood” is displacing parenthood for adults who are raising or taking care of Generation Alpha and Generation Z youth. But “sharenthood” poses significant risks to youth privacy, as well as their current and future life opportunities. Parents and other key adult stakeholders—including lawmakers, regulators and tech companies—need to ask ourselves how we can better protect youth privacy and, with it, the protected space for play: the ability to make mischief, make mistakes and grow up better for having made them—without having them hanging over your head into adulthood.

Here is how “sharenting” happens: parents—as well as grandparents, other relatives and other adults who teach, coach or take care of children—share private information about children through digital devices and services, typically with good intentions and often without realising they are doing so.

“Sharenting” often happens on social media (like Lucy’s mother) but, although the practice is generally defined as digital transmission by parents on social media, properly understood, sharenting includes all digital devices and services through which parents or other adults input youth private information to be captured, shared, stored, or analysed—including smart devices, educational apps and more. This approach to parenting and other caretaking subtly but fundamentally transforms childhood and adolescence from a space of play—a zone of exploration of self and world—to a space of surveillance, which has far-reaching, sometimes life-altering, implications.

More on the Forum Network: How more robust evidence can help tackle terrorist and violent extremist content online, by Jeremy West, Head of Digital Security and Safety Unit, OECD

The livestreaming and sharing of terrorist and violent extremist content online has become too frequent, too brutal, and too pressing to ignore. Only with a co-ordinated, international approach can we end this scourge while safeguarding human rights.

Sharenting has many negative consequences. Sometimes, sharenting leads to criminal, illegal or otherwise dangerous conduct being perpetrated against children, like re-purposing of photos into abusive images or theft of children’s identities. More commonly, sharenting leads to conduct that is non-criminal, non-dangerous and often fully legal (depending on the applicable privacy law) but is still invasive and unfair against children, such as using digital information about them to profile them or inform predictions of their life trajectories. And, unless the sharent is asking for child consent and engaging the child in developmentally appropriate decision-making prior to sharing, sharenting leads to limitations on children’s ability to develop their own identities, relationships and sense of agency.

To minimise the negative consequences of sharenting and support the positive ones, all key stakeholders need to engage, with distinct yet complementary solution sets.

Sharenting does also have positive consequences. Notably, sharenting powered children’s access to education during many stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, as parents opened up their homes as digital education centres for their children (if they were fortunate enough to have access to an internet connection and an internet-enabled device). Sharenting can build supportive connections between families and people and institutions outside of the home. And, while there often are significant privacy risks associated with it, “commercial sharenting” (monetised sharenting) can generate income for families (although not necessarily the children who appear in it).

To minimise the negative consequences of sharenting and support the positive ones, all key stakeholders need to engage, with distinct yet complementary solution sets.

For parents, model the “digital citizenship” (including respect, candor, integrity and other values) that you want your children to have. For example, if you’re raising a five-year-old and want them not to “sext” and be vulnerable to “sextortion” when they’re 15, don’t share pictures of them in the bathtub or even in a bathing suit when they’re little. If they see you posting pictures of them without all their clothes on it is more difficult, if not impossible, to get them to post only fully clothed shots themselves.

Most parents and other adults taking care of today’s children were not themselves born digital: we’re still learning how to navigate the digital world.

For lawmakers, come together in multi-stakeholder coalitions across borders around common-sense youth privacy measures that aim to protect young people from the most harmful consequences of sharenting without undermining parental autonomy and liberty. For example, make sure that privacy laws prevent employers, educational institutions and other key opportunity gatekeepers from making use of sharented data to inform youth access to opportunities across their lives. These laws should include individually enforceable rights—with meaningful remedies attached—that youth can bring against gatekeepers and co-operating tech companies to stop or, if it is too late to stop, to receive compensation for the harms they experience from this use of sharented data. Also, fund law enforcement and other government regulators to deter and, when necessary, stop and punish criminal, illegal and dangerous sharenting-based conduct against children.

Finally, for tech companies, build “parent-friendly” products and services—the adult version of “age appropriate design”. Most parents and other adults taking care of today’s children were not themselves born digital: we’re still learning how to navigate the digital world. Give us social media platforms that discourage or, at a minimum, provide transparent and straightforward warnings about sharenting. Give us smart toys to give to our kids that are surveillance-free. And give us contracts with clear, comprehensive, accurate terms about what you will and will not do with our children’s private information—and make your answers ethical and commonsensical. Just as Lucy wants her mother to ask for permission before posting, we want you to ask us and our children for actual permission before using our children’s private information—and to avoid uses that might limit or harm them, now or in the future.





Find out more about the OECD's work on Children, and the OECD Recommendation on Children in the Digital Environment adopted in May 2021
Find out more about the OECD's work on Children, and the OECD Recommendation on Children in the Digital Environment adopted in May 2021

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