“Sharenting” causes embarrassment and potential risks for kids

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Parents love to share about their kids on social media, but these posts can embarrass kids and put them at risk for identity theft. (Lisi Merkley)

Social media has created a whole new discussion when it comes to online security and privacy of children. Parents can now document a child’s whole life over the internet by posting pictures, videos and funny stories of their kids for the whole world to see.

Alisa Ellingson, an Orem mom, said she learned the hard way that what she posts about her kids can really impact them.

“I don’t want to share things that my kids would consider personal,” Ellingson said. “I have made that mistake before and have hurt my child’s feelings.”

“Sharenting,” a term derived from parenting and sharing, is a great way for parents to feel connected with friends and family through social media, but it comes with its own risks as Ellingson learned. Researchers say these posts could lead to cyber-security threats later on in life, and children often view these posts as an invasion of their privacy or as an embarrassment.

“The risk of getting your identity stolen is obviously a big one and a bad one if that actually happens,” BYU family life professor Sarah Coyne said. “Most parents, though, don’t post social security numbers on their social media.”

According to Coyne, the more imminent concern is a parent sharing embarrassing posts that a kid’s friends and even future colleges and employers can see.

Coyne said the best way to avoid conflicts over what is embarrassing to a child is to ask them for permission to post something. “(The key) is really just knowing your kid and their personal preferences and kind of being open about that process,” she said.

Research on the effects of sharenting is still in its infancy as kids born in the era of social media are still growing up. Current studies largely look at teens’ experiences with the issue.

“If I had to guess I would suspect that the long-term impact would be low and minor,” Coyne said. “We live in a world where we often share our lives online, and our kids are growing up in that world.”

Bill Welsh, a collection manager for BYU Student Financial Services, said people should exercise caution in what they post online to protect against identity theft.

“Predators often can and do utilize social media to prey on children,” Welsh said. “Identity thieves could also try to derive and then use information provided by an article or post about a child that could indicate date of birthday, address, etc.”

Welsh said he recommends following the Federal Trade Commission’s advice to protect children’s data and identity, which includes storing sensitive information in a safe place both physically and online and limiting the amounts of time their social security number is given out.

“We should all do more to assure that our data remains confidential and that those to whom we share the data are both responsible and also held responsible for what they do with the information,” Welsh said.

As researchers continue to study the effects of sharenting on kids, the government is also trying to adapt to this new environment by regulating companies’ access to a child’s data on the internet.

Congress passed the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) in 1998 and subsequent amendments in 2012 to keep up with the changing technologies. The rule requires websites and apps that are primarily for kids under 13 to post a privacy policy, obtain parental consent and keep the data they collect private and confidential.

Social media sites, however, are not covered under this rule, and it also does not cover any information or data shared by parents about their younger children. The rule gives parents more awareness of the availability of their child’s data on the web and also more responsibility for that data.

For now, parents are largely in charge of what data is out there about their children.

“You just have to be thoughtful about what you’re posting and make good choices for your child’s online history,” Coyne said.

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