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Growing Up Online: Are You Sharing Too Much?

In the era of over-sharing, it’s not surprising that parents post photos of their kids on social media. What’s truly startling is the popularity of something that has been called, for better or worse, ‘kid-shaming.’ The idea of taking a photo of a sign hanging around a loved one’s neck seems to have started with pets. Maybe it is funny to see dogs, cats and even hamsters who seem to be confessing their ‘sins,’ but when children are the subject of these photos, many viewers find themselves cringing instead of chuckling.

Some ‘shaming’ photos are clearly intended to be entertaining. In a contemporary version of ‘kids say (and do) the darndest things,’ parents of toddlers or even infants post ostensibly cute pictures of little ones holding messages about potty accidents or other childish forms of misbehavior. In other cases, parents seem to hope that online shaming will be an effective form of discipline. Some parents, frustrated by unruly teens, have updated The Scarlet Letter by posting photos of young people holding signs describing infractions ranging from stealing and cheating to back talk and breaking curfew.

Although kid-shaming photos may seem extreme, they raise serious questions about when it’s appropriate to expose children to the scrutiny of social media.

Here are questions worth asking before you post any photo of your child:

What’s my motivation? Parenthood can be frustrating and lonely. Connecting with other parents - on the playground, at the sidelines of soccer games - is a time-honored way to relieve stress. After kibbutzing with other parents, most people return to the challenges of raising children with more perspective and better balance. Social media may seem like a variation on this theme, and posting a funny photo of a child may temporarily relieve adult feelings of embarrassment, irritation or isolation.

The difference, of course, is that social media throws an unwilling or oblivious child into the spotlight, inviting laughter, judgment and even ridicule. When you’re tempted to post a photo of your child, stop for a moment and examine your own feelings. Are you acting out of love for your child? Or is posting a way to meet your own (very legitimate) needs for attention or support? If it’s all about you, consider other ways of getting what you need. Phone a friend. Join a parenting group. Read a book on child development. Or keep a (private!) journal.

How would I feel if I were the one in the photo? Everyone makes mistakes. In healthy families, people can count on loved ones not to blab about their weaknesses. Even the cutest kid-shaming photos violate this trust. Before posting, try to imagine - in detail - how you would feel if someone (spouse, child, friend, parent) shared an image of you at your worst or with a sign around your neck proclaiming your most embarrassing secret.

Will this make my child feel ashamed or humiliated? Humiliation is one of the quickest ways to undermine trust in a relationship. Overwhelmed parents may be tempted to try it as a discipline strategy because shame can produce short-term compliance. Unfortunately, child development experts agree that the long-term consequences of being called out in public are damaging. Public punishment makes a child feel defined by their mistake, so it’s likely to lead to feelings of isolation, self-hatred, hostility or even revenge. In contrast, effective discipline helps children understand how they can make amends for mistakes in the past and make better choices in the future.

What if this goes viral? Most of what’s posted online disappears without a trace. There are, however, rather conspicuous exceptions. Before sharing a photo or video of your child, think about what would happen to your kid - and you - if that image turns out to be one of the random items that gets shared by millions of other people. When a post takes on a life of its own and becomes associated with a child’s name, it’s likely to be the first thing that shows up in future searches by everyone from employers to romantic partners. Do you really want your child - or your parenting - to be defined by one foolish moment?

Do I want my child to follow this example? Most parents teach their kids not to embarrass much less mock other people. Those lessons seem rather lame when kids discover parents have posted photos that mortify or make fun of them. In this respect, kid-shaming resembles teasing. You may say you’re “just kidding” but often there’s an undercurrent of hostility that makes it difficult to distinguish teasing from bullying. To raise kids who are caring and respectful, parents have to be models of caring, respectful behavior online as well as off.

Will this post improve your relationship with your child? Some images do strengthen relationships because they affirm a family’s values - pride in a child’s accomplishment, a shared sense of humor, times of genuine togetherness. When it seems important to post pictures of your family, seek out photos that will reinforce what’s good about your connection with your kid.

If you’re uncertain about posting an image, you can, of course, ask your child whether it’s okay to share. When children are too young to answer that question or to anticipate the possible consequences, parents bear the added responsibility of trying to imagine what they might think now as well as in the future. Given what’s at stake, some parents may decide that, when it comes to kids, ‘under-sharing’ is by far the better option.

Carolyn Jabs, M.A., raised three computer-savvy kids including one with special needs. She has been writing +Growing Up Online for 10 years, and is working on a book about constructive responses to conflict. To read other columns, visit

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