These days, Yalda T. Uhls always takes a moment before posting a photo of her child on social media. She learned this the hard way.
“It came home to roost a year ago when my daughter, who is now 15, told me to take a photo of me kissing her off Facebook because she was embarrassed by it. My first reaction was, ‘I don’t have to do that, it’s my photo and it’s sweet.’ But then I realized that she had every right to ask me, so I took it down.”
If this can happen to Uhls, a Los Angeles-based child psychologist, she says it could happen to anyone. Uhls says parents rarely think ahead a few years to when their child may cringe to see an old photo of themselves online. Children are not only over-scheduled these days, she adds, they are oftentimes over-photographed.
To prevent this, some parents give themselves clear rules for posting about their children on social media, like creating filters and select groups that only have access to certain photo albums. “I do not have any video footage of my child,” says Carly Sommerstein, a Weehawken, N.J.-based production editor with a major book publisher, and mother to an 11-year-old son.
“I live with him every day and I know what he looks like. I don’t I.D. him by name on Facebook. My Facebook wall is completely locked down and photos there are not sharable.” Nor does she roam her home with a smartphone. “Not everything has to be captured. Some things can be kept in your heart and your mind. My son is a separate human being, and I respect his autonomy and privacy. Narcissism in our culture is so destructive, but it’s never been so accepted.”
Also see: This academic study of people who post selfies confirms everything you suspect
And yet many parents are living through the lens of their smartphone rather than in the moment: 80% of adults say they’ve seen parents put their attempts to get the perfect photo ahead of their child’s enjoyment of an event, according to a recent survey – “Society’s New Addiction: Getting a ‘Like’ Over Having a Life” – of over 1,600 adults by VitalSmarts, a training and consulting firm in Provo, Utah.
The study interviewed people about their social media habits – how many followers or friends they have online and how often they check their accounts – and asked them to fill out the widely used Subjective Happiness Scale. People who chase ‘likes’ on social media are also likely to regard themselves as less happy, it found.
The perils of being a social media child star
What to know before making your child a social media darling. Quentin Fottrell joins Tanya Rivero on Lunch Break.
Other research also shows that parents are going gaga over photos of their children. The average parent will post almost 1,000 photos of their child online before he/she turns five, according to another recent survey of 2,000 parents by The Parent Zone, a U.K.-based site devoted to Internet safety and parenting in the digital age.
More than half (53%) of these photos are posted on Facebook , while the remainder are posted on Twitter , Instagram and other sites. A quarter of parents say they never ask permission of people in photos before sharing them and nearly one-fifth of parents have never checked their privacy settings. Indeed, less than half of the parents surveyed are even aware that photos often contain data about where it was taken.
Parents compete with each other online
Behind this growing body of research on “sharenting” – parents who share details of their family life online, ostensibly to give other parents advice – there are some shocking stories of how moms and dads put the prospect of Facebook ‘likes’ ahead of being present with their child, the VitalSmarts study found.
One mother of a 3-year old child told researchers, “I disciplined my son and he threw a tantrum that I thought was so funny that I disciplined him again just so I could video it. After uploading it on Instagram I thought, ‘What did I just do?’” Another parent snapped photos of a crying child who had lost a tooth rather than console him. Other admissions involve making children recreate happy “spontaneous” moments for the camera.
This videotaping and photographing becomes more intense when you combine the virtual stage with the school stage. One father told the VitalSmarts interviewers that he videotaped his daughter’s 65-minute dance recital rather than simply sitting back and enjoying it. “My wife asked me throughout the event to stop and enjoy the real performance,” he said.
What’s more, he was videotaping the wrong little girl for 80% of the show and, he said, “the tape was grainy, dark, and almost unwatchable.” And for children who do want to act, an audience filled with glowing iPads does not accurately prepare a child for a career as a performer, Sommerstein says. Schools should film performances and ban cellphones in the auditorium, she adds.
That said, some parents are becoming aware that asking their kids to say cheese (rather than eat it) is a problem, at least when it comes to others. The majority of parents who use social media (74%) say they know of another parent who has shared too much information about a child, including parents who gave embarrassing information about a child, offered personal information that could identify a child’s location or shared inappropriate photos of a child, a 2014 survey of 570 parents by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital found.
“Parents need to be thoughtful about how much and what they share about their kids on social media,” says Sarah Clark, associate research scientist in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Michigan.
Children are picking up bad life skills
Children learn by example, even a bad example. “Our children will do what we do,” says Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age” and research associate at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry.
“Kids should have veto power over the pictures we take and post on social media,” she says. “We need to teach children the message that we own our body and we own our image and ask questions like, ‘Would you mind me sending it to grandma or grandpa?” Her research is based on interviews with 1,000 children between four and 18 years of age, 24 children aged between two and four, 250 adults aged 18 to 30, plus 500 teachers and 500 parents.
This culture of taking and sharing family photographs can be wonderful, fun and intimate, but when done excessively can also backfire and put more distance between parents and kids, experts say, rather than bring them closer together.
One 11-year-old boy told Steiner-Adair, “I hate it when my dad comes to watch me play hockey and all he does is videotape me playing and then when it’s over he wants to show me all the things that I did wrong. Isn’t that what a coach is for?” Steiner-Adair asked, “What do you want him to do?” The child replied, “Like, cheering or moaning.” The child didn’t mind if his father gave him positive or negative feedback after-the-fact, as long as he was engaged in the game in real time. Steiner-Adair says children notice when they’re being photographed: “It puts a barrier between you and them.”
When parents vie for the attention of their peers on social media, Steiner-Adair says, it can lead their children to do the same. “It comes up on the school bus a lot,” she says; a child might take a photo of a classmate sleeping or drooling, for example, and pass it around the class for fun. Another side-effect: Where they go on vacation, what they wear and what they look like start to become important.
“It can be a very vicious competitive sport,” she adds, especially when those kids become teenagers. “Then they see who is hanging out at whose party and they know every single thing they’re excluded from and it really creates a fear of missing out.” One teenager told her, “When I look at everybody’s perfect picture, I just want to give up.”
Summer camps post daily photos for parents
Once upon a time, kids went to summer camp and would not be heard from until they got home. These days, hundreds of camps around the country feature them in daily photo and video posts, a practice that is often encouraged by their parents. The camps do take precautions before posting photographs, and ask parents’ permission first.
“Some parents even ask their kids, ‘Pull on your right ear if you’re happy and pull on you left ear if you’re homesick,’” Steiner-Adair says. “This undermines their independence and being away from the watchful eyes of their parents.” Spending time away from each other is good for both parties, she adds. “Old-fashioned letter writing is a beautiful thing. Parents put off going out as they wait anxiously for the six o’clock video to post. They should be deriving pleasure from having some separation from their children.”
The photo albums of many camps – including Canyon Creek summer camp in Angeles National Forest, Calif. and the Alpine summer camp in Blue Jay, Calif. – are password protected (although Alpine has a promotional video featuring camp kids and Canyon shares photos on the public Facebook page). (Alpine did not respond to requests for comment.) Canyon Creek has two photographers, says Nick Coffing, director at the camp.
“Our Facebook page is public, but we try not to post any photos of kids in bathing suits on Facebook,” he says. “A lot of our parents are happy and say, ‘Our kids made the page.’ A lot of them are stoked about it. If any parent was concerned, we take it down immediately.”
JCC Louisville summer camp in Louisville, Ky., a day camp, also shares photos on its Facebook page; Facebook owns the right to distribute and license photos posted on its site. The decision to post on Facebook was made by the JCC’s committee, which is also made up of parents, says Ben Goldenberg, marketing director at the Jewish Community Center in Louisville.
“So far we have not had any negative reaction to it,” he says. “It helps parents get more involved with camp life, and the more involved they are the more likely they are to come back.” (And not every camp posts daily photos.
Camps of the Aloha Foundation in Fairlee, Vt., which has three overnight camps and one day camp, posts about a dozen password-protected photos per camp once a week. “We’re really trying to hold a line,” says Laura Gillespie, director of communications and alumni relations at Aloha. “We try to separate the parents from what the campers are doing. We want to give a taste of what’s happening at camp without showing every parent a photo of their child all the time.”)
The effects of being a social media child star
By being expected to perform for the smartphone camera, children also learn about impression management and putting on a happy face even if they may feel down in the dumps, says Uhls, who is also director of creative community partnerships at Common Sense Media, an organization examining the impact of technology and media on children, and author of “Media Moms Digital Dads: A Fact Not Fear Approach to Parenting in the Digital Age.” In fact, elementary and middle school students value fame as the most important value for the future, according to a study co-authored by Uhls and published in the March 2012 edition of the American Psychological Association’s journal “Developmental Psychology.”
“Adults are often the gateway to children learning that posting selfies and videos of themselves brings status,” Uhls says. Her research shows that social media contributes to this above and beyond even television, she adds. Several children, who initially had no desire to post photos themselves, spoke about adults – a piano teacher posting about her student’s concert, a father posting about his son’s soccer goals and a pastor posting about a child’s choir – that taught them that it was desirable to find a public audience. “Teens are particularly vulnerable because they are trying to develop their own identity,” Uhls says. “They can now compare themselves to others all of the time – if they are vulnerable or insecure, they may start to obsess.”
Of course, smartphones and Facebook don’t turn mothers into stage moms and dads into de facto sports coaches, but they do amplify those qualities if they already exist, Steiner-Adair says, and it’s unhealthy for the parents’ emotional well-being as well as the child’s self-esteem.
“All parents are vulnerable to over-identifying with their children even before there were smartphones,” she says. “They’re the parents who would love to share at every school meeting about how talented and exceptional their child was, but this is a whole new minefield for parents escaping from whatever is going on in their own lives, and living vicariously through their children and having their children define them. That’s not a happy place to be for that child.”
Facebook and Instagram bring people together
Lest we forget, there’s a lot of joy in sharing memories, too. Previous generations didn’t have the luxury of being able to record the lives of their children on a smartphone and sharing it with a grandmother in Poland or a sister in Australia seconds later. The Internet has brought people closer together and smartphone camera technology – while not perfect, especially under artificial light – allows parents to record special moments of their family’s life: A child’s first step, a birthday party and even random, funny moments that would otherwise be lost forever. “There was the classic grainy home movie footage,” says the University of Michigan’s Sarah Clark. “It was more of a big production. Now the recording of life has moved into a daily activity.”
When used properly, social media can be a useful tool. Shy children and teens can use sites like Facebook and a photo-filtering site like Instagram to show a side of their personalities that their peers may not necessarily get to see, Steiner-Adair says. “Being online helps them to connect with people at school,” she says. “If they go on a social networking site and actually make a plan to get together with somebody that can make them feel good.” But it shouldn’t be used as a crutch, either, she adds. Too much screen time can lead to isolation: Studies have shown that the more time people spend scrolling through other people’s photos, the more likely they are to report feeling envious, depressed and frustrated with their lives.
And parents are doing online what their own parents did over the garden fence a generation ago, just in a different context. “So many people live far away from their circle of family members and friends,” Clark adds. “Social media is a really nice way to watch people close to you grow up. If someone comments, ‘Oh, what a happy baby,’ it can make parents feel successful, and a confidence boost like that isn’t a small thing. [Parenting is] a tough job some days.”
Social media allows them to proudly share their child’s accomplishments, provide support for other struggling parents who are raising young children and show a beautiful side to family life that can help parents regain perspective after a long day. This, Steiner-Adair says, reminds parents that all the hard work is actually worth it.
Also see: Smartphone dependency fuels other addictions, say rehab clinics
There is a healthy middle ground. Lisa Tierney-Keogh, a New York-based playwright, is conscious about protecting her two-year-old daughter’s privacy. “I feel like we have no idea what will happen when these kids grow up and say, ‘I’ve been on the Internet for 20 years and I had no say in it.’ I also don’t want to bore people and be one of those people who say, ‘Look at my darling children.’” She only posts certain photos of her daughter online: no bath-time photos and she is never looking directly into the camera.
“It doesn’t come from a place of fear, it comes from a place of sensitivity and protection,” she says. “It’s hard to raise a child in America. There’s a lot of competition to be seen to be doing well and always capturing those perfect family moments.”
This story was first published on August 5, 2015.