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  • Andrew Sears

The Ethics of Sharenting

Editor's Note: This week, I'm excited to feature an essay by Hannah Schaller, a recent graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law whose work focuses on technology and privacy law. Hannah explores a question that's intimately relevant to many of us: How should parents make ethical decisions when sharing content about their children online? By analyzing this question through the lenses of Kantian deontology and virtue ethics, she offers new insights and makes a unique contribution to this important conversation. You can connect with Hannah on LinkedIn and Twitter.



Imagine Googling your name, only to discover that someone has been documenting your life and sharing it online without your consent. You see some images of yourself that you think are cute, but others that you consider to be unflattering or intimate. There’s a video of you doing a silly dance, and another where your mom discusses your potty-training progress. Dozens of people have viewed and responded to the content, many of whom you don’t personally know. How would you feel if you stumbled on such an archive?


For many children, this is not an imagined scenario, but an eventuality. Their parents have shared their lives online since infancy, creating a trove of images and personal details. These children have digital identities before they can walk. Facebook recognizes their faces before they can recognize themselves in a mirror.


“Sharenting,” as this phenomenon is called, is a massive, informal social experiment. The first generation of test subjects is entering its early teens. Some of them aren’t bothered by their unasked-for digital presence, but others grow up to resent it [1]. These mixed results invite us to reconsider sharenting as it is currently practiced, and ask: what values underlie sharenting? What values does it promote? What considerations should guide how parents share their kids’ lives online?


Conflicts of Interest


Sharenting creates tension between free speech and parental decision-making on the one hand, and a child’s interests in privacy and self-determination on the other [2]. Parents have the right to free speech online, which includes sharing things about their children. They can also decide many things for their children, from what they eat to how much TV they watch. Often these decisions are in the child’s interest; many kids would eat too much junk food or watch too much TV if their parents did not set healthy limits. Sometimes, though, parents face a conflict when their interests and their child’s interests do not align. For example, driving through McDonald’s for dinner every night is faster and easier than cooking balanced meals at home. Parents have a valid interest in conserving time and effort, but their children have an equally valid interest in eating a healthy diet.


Conflicts of interest arise in the context of sharenting when a parent’s interests in free speech and decision-making conflict with a child’s interests in privacy and self-determination. Children have an interest in protecting their digital privacy by limiting the amount and types of information about them that is online, only sharing it with secure sources, and preventing unwanted third-party access. In our current online ecosystem, the more personal information you put online, the less guarded your privacy is. This is because it is difficult, if not impossible, to audit a digital archive frequently and thoroughly enough to ensure perfect security. In addition, the Internet at large and many websites within it were not built for perfect security. Websites turn your information into datapoints that they use to analyze your behavior, which helps them profit from your online engagement—for example, by selling ad slots to advertisers who want to reach users with your preferences. Many websites sell or license your data to companies you’ve never heard of, for purposes other than your original purpose in sharing the data. Even if your data remains within a social media company, it is amassed in troves and fed into algorithms that determine the content you see and who sees your activity.


Given the nature of the Internet and social media, sharing personal information online creates many risks to privacy. These risks arise both from security flaws and from the fact that online content is somewhat indelible. When a photo or post is put on social media, it may exist online in some form indefinitely. Photos that were deleted in one place may resurface elsewhere years later. Even if content could be deleted from the Internet, it would be impossible to undo the effects of sharing it—to erase the memories of people who saw it, track down everyone who downloaded it, and delete the data that was gleaned from it. Once privacy is put at risk by sharing information online, it is incredibly hard to undo the effects.


Some possibilities are more concerning. Every social media post runs the risk that it will be seen and used by people who were not intended to see it, including identity thieves, pedophiles, and other bad actors. Numerous harms can result from this unwanted third-party access. For example, children are targeted by a new type of identity theft called “digital kidnapping.” This happens when a stranger finds a child’s photo online and uses it as if it is their own photo. They may pretend to be the child, pretend that the child is theirs, or create some other fictional identity for the child [3]. Unless the true parents are able to discover and correct this, their child’s likeness will be associated online with both their true identity and the false identity created by the kidnapper.


In addition to privacy, sharenting impacts a child’s interest in self-determination: their ability to control their own life, including shaping their own identity online and offline. Sharenting can affect the process of identity formation by representing children in ways that they don’t want to be represented—ways that conflict with their inner sense of identity or the identity they want to have. This can negatively impact identity formation, whether by pressuring children to conform to their online identities or provoking them to rebel [4]. Insufficient autonomy and privacy can also diminish a child’s wellbeing [5].


Hopefully this discussion explains the conflict of interests inherent to sharenting. When parents express themselves online by posting about their child, they infringe on the child’s privacy and impact their identity. Parents take privacy risks with information that pertains to the child, not to them, and that will digitally follow the child for decades. They also shape the child’s digital identity in ways that the child may not appreciate. Further, parents often make these decisions about their child’s privacy and identity without the child’s knowledge or consent.


We could take several approaches to resolve this conflict of interests. We could consult legal precedent, apply social mores, or look to developing norms. In addition, we could analyze the interests through the lens of ethics. There are a variety of ethical frameworks to choose from, but two are especially relevant in the context of sharenting: duty-based ethics and virtue ethics. These schools of thought can help us explore the relationships between sharenting, parental duties, and virtue. They offer insights into the question: to what extent is sharenting ethically sound?


Duty-Based Ethics: What Duties do Parents Owe Their Children?


Duty-based ethics, or deontological ethics, focuses on our actions and whether they comport with the moral duties that we owe each other—for example, the duty not to steal or lie. In The Science of Right, the deontological ethicist Immanuel Kant argued that parents have certain duties that are particular to their relationship with their kids. Specifically, he wrote that parents must respect their children’s personhood [6]. Kant emphasized that children are endowed with the same human dignity and personhood as adults. For him, this meant having free will, individuality, and autonomy, among other things. Kant recognized that children are under their parents’ care and command until they can maintain themselves, but he cautioned that a parent’s rights cannot disregard a child’s personhood [7].


Kant wrote that parents owe their children all the duties that they owe to people generally. This includes what was for him the most basic duty: to treat each other as ends, not means. The theory of this duty is complex, but we can think of it as a general call to treat people, whether adults or children, in ways that respect their free will, individuality, and autonomy.


In summary: if parents owe their children the same duties that they owe to other adults, they owe them respect for their personhood. Similarly, they have a duty to treat their children as ends, not means. From the perspective of duty-based ethics, actions that violate these duties are unethical.


Applying these principles to sharenting, duty-based ethics teaches us that parents should respect their children’s personhood when sharing information about them online. Photos of children should not be shared in the same manner as photos of succulents, coffee, or other non-human subjects, which have no opinions or feelings about how they are represented. Parents should also not treat their children as means to an end in their online engagement. This raises some questions. What does it look like to respect personhood (autonomy and individuality) online? What online behavior treats people as means to an end, rather than an end in themselves?


Autonomy centers on the ability to make choices about our lives. Online, this means making choices about what happens to our information. Some examples of pro-autonomous features are the ability to opt out of certain browser cookies, choose your privacy settings, and approve another social media user’s request to “tag” you in a photo. Individuality concerns a child’s particular preferences and sense of identity. We express our individuality online by engaging with social media as we prefer to, and by choosing what we share in order to craft identities that reflect how we want to be perceived. The key to both autonomy and individuality is control. And to maintain control over our digital presence and identity, we must be able to consent to the ways in which our information is used and distributed.


Parents can respect their children’s autonomy and individuality by giving them the chance to consent or withhold consent before posting content about them on social media. They can also give their children the option to have no online presence until the children are ready to have their own social media accounts and make their own choices. Consent must be informed to be meaningful, so parents should discuss with their children the effects of sharing something on social media before asking for consent. For example, they should explain that many people will see a photo and that it will be online for a long time. Consent gives children an important role in shaping their own digital identities by letting them choose whether and how their information is used on social media [8].


These questions are more difficult if a child is too young to give meaningful consent. A strict Kantian approach would not allow for sharing in this circumstance. Kantian ethics are notoriously inflexible, as here, where they would not give weight to the parental right of free speech. To recognize this right and give parents some leeway, we can imagine a Kant-inspired ethical spectrum, ranging from content that is minimally violative of individuality and autonomy to very violative of these interests. Parents could ask how much a particular piece of content goes against their child’s autonomy and individuality to determine whether they should share it. For example, content that would strongly affect a child’s digital identity, such as a mental health condition or a partially-clothed photo, would be very violative of individuality and best not to share. Content that would minimally affect this identity, like a birth announcement without a photo, would be less problematic.


The Kantian duty to treat children as ends, not means, has lessons for sharenting as well. It prompts parents to ask why they are sharing content about their children in the first place. If they are sharing it for the benefit of someone other than the child, then they are using the child as a means to that benefit. For example, if a parent shares a photo of their child eating a healthy meal because it reflects well on them as a parent, they are using their child as a means to enhance their own reputation. The question of ends and means invites deep self-reflection on the reasons for sharenting. It may help parents assess whether their motives are ethically sound.


Virtue Ethics: How Does Sharenting Shape the Self?


As an alternative to duty-based ethics, we can consider sharenting through the lens of virtue ethics. Virtue ethics asks whether actions promote or undermine virtues (morally desirable character traits) in the person acting. Within this framework, individuals should strive to cultivate good moral character by acting consistently with virtues such as justice, benevolence, and generosity. Our choices and actions, including how we use social media, are central to developing and reinforcing virtues.


Applying this, we can ask whether sharenting promotes a virtuous character. The underlying dynamics must inform this question. As we’ve discussed, sharenting places children’s privacy at risk and can harm their identity formation. It does not seem to benefit children substantially. Rather, children seem to bear most of the cost while their parents gain most of the benefit. Free speech and privacy are not the only factors to consider when asking whether a particular act of sharenting is virtuous. Other considerations may include a parent’s internal motive and external results other than diminished privacy—for example, the ability to foster a connection between a child and their relatives living far away. Virtue ethics considers real-life contexts and cannot be divorced from situation-specific factors. All things considered, if a child bears most of the detriment from a particular act of sharenting while a parent reaps most of the benefit, the act is likely selfish, regardless of the parent’s intentions. Selfish actions cultivate selfishness, which undermines the virtue of altruism or selflessness. Thus, if an act of sharenting is selfish, it is unethical from a virtue ethics perspective.


Selfishness is not the only potential pitfall of sharenting, but this analysis illustrates how to approach the question from the standpoint of virtue ethics. It focuses on the virtues of the individual acting. As a complement, we can also consider virtues within relationships. This is a strength of care ethics, a modern ethical framework that is sometimes considered a type of virtue ethics [9]. Care ethics sees interpersonal relationships as the center of moral action. It focuses primarily on the virtue of caring or benevolence between the caregiver and the recipient of care—for instance, between a parent and their child.


According to care ethics, benevolence requires caregivers to be attentive and responsive to the needs of the people in their care [10]. In this model, sharenting is ethical so long as it responds to the needs of the children whose lives are being shared. Children have emotional and psychological needs that can be threatened by sharenting, including the need to feel safe, trust their parents, and have agency. Sharenting can undermine a child’s sense of safety and security by making them anxious that everything they do could be filmed and put online. It can break trust if children share thoughts or feelings with their parents that they consider private, only to discover that these confidences were broadcast on social media. If children have no say in the matter, sharenting also deprives them of agency. Ethical sharenting would respect these basic needs—perhaps by asking children if it is okay to share content about them. This would give children agency, preserve trust, and create a sense of safety.


Individual children will have individual preferences that go beyond these basic needs. Care ethics calls for these particular, idiosyncratic concerns to be respected as well. For example, a parent may observe that their child is shy and easily embarrassed when people see them being silly. To respond to this sensitivity, the parents should take special care before sharing anything that could be embarrassing to the child. The best way to respect individual preferences is to talk with children and ask how they feel about sharing specific content.


Characteristics of Ethical Sharenting


Duty-based ethics and virtue ethics focus on different questions, but they both highlight the importance of children’s participation in sharenting. By giving their children an active role in their online identities, parents act ethically, support their children’s wellbeing, and strengthen the parent-child relationship. Asking for a child’s consent before sharing content about them online is central to ethical sharenting. In duty-based ethics, obtaining consent respects a child’s autonomy and individuality. In care ethics, it is how parents foster virtues like benevolence. Under both systems, consent is key to ensuring ethical integrity.


Both approaches encourage parents to ask hard questions before sharing content about their children. Duty-based ethics requires them to examine their motives for sharenting—is it for a child’s benefit, or for some other reason? Does it respect a child’s autonomy and individuality? Care ethics requires parents to ask about the consequences of sharenting. Will the potential costs to a child, like risks to privacy, outweigh the potential benefits? Ethics invites parents to wrestle with these questions and offers tools to help them figure out the answers.


In closing, some common characteristics of ethical sharenting emerge from this discussion. Ethical sharenting is a collaborative process that involves parents and children making decisions together. It is a thoughtful process that requires parents to weigh many factors, explore their motives, and consider their children’s specific needs. It is not instantaneous, impulsive, or unilateral. Parents should look for these qualities when they share content about their children online. When sharenting is collaborative, thoughtful, and based on children’s consent, it has the markings of ethical integrity.



Footnotes


[1] Taylor Lorenz, When Kids Realize Their Whole Life Is Already Online, The Atlantic (Feb. 20, 2019), https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2019/02/when-kids-realize-their-whole-life-already-online/582916/. [2] For an excellent analysis of these interests and their legal implications, see Stacey Steinberg, Sharenting: Children’s Privacy in the Age of Social Media, 66 Emory Law Journal 839 (2017), available at https://scholarship.law.ufl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=&httpsredir=1&article=1796&context=facultypub. [3] Steven Bearak, Digital Kidnapping: What It Is and How to Keep Your Kids Safe on Social Media, ParentMap (Nov. 16, 2017), https://www.parentmap.com/article/kidnappers-kids-photos-digital-kidnapping-social-media. [4] Elizabeth Fernandez, What We Post On Social Media May Harm Our Children’s Development, Forbes (July 8, 2019), https://www.forbes.com/sites/fernandezelizabeth/2019/07/08/what-we-post-on-social-media-may-harm-our-childrens-development/#553a7042536b. [5] Steinberg, supra note 2, at 867. [6] Immanuel Kant, The Science of Right, trans. W. Hastie (1790), title II, sections 28-29. [7] Id. at section 29. [8] Many people advocate for children’s consent within sharenting. See, for example, Adrienne LaFrance, The Perils of ‘Sharenting’, The Atlantic (Oct. 6, 2019), https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/10/babies-everywhere/502757/. [9] For an overview of this school of thought, see Brian K. Burton and Craig P. Dunn, Ethics of Care, Encyclopaedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/ethics-of-care. [10] Carol Gilligan, a key figure in care ethics, discusses this in an interview with the website Ethics of Care. See https://ethicsofcare.org/carol-gilligan/.


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technovirtuism is a project by Andrew Sears