by Lauren Lewis, Associate at Trudie Broekmann Attorneys
In the age of social media, millennial parents, in particular, have taken to documenting their children’s lives on various social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. This has resulted in the coining of the term “sharenting,” defined by the Collins Dictionary as the “habitual use of social media to share news, images, etc. of one’s children.”
In an article published in City Press, trend analyst, Dion Chang, writes about the concept of sharenting and refers to a survey by an internet security company which found that 92% of toddlers under the age of 2 have their own online identity which was created by their parents.
This poses interesting questions about the parents’ right to free speech and the autonomy of children and their right to privacy. While parents do have the right to share about their children and their experience as a parent, will these toddlers – when they reach adulthood – appreciate the embarrassing stories posted about their potty-training victories and failures, their struggles with learning to read or perhaps making friends at a new school? In short, will they welcome the formation of their digital identity without any input of their own? Dion Chang writes that Generation Z (today’s teenagers) are “taking their parents to task for posting pictures of them without their consent.”
In South Africa, the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPI) places the responsibility on parents to determine whether the personal information of their children may be processed by a “responsible party” (a company or individual who determines the purpose and means for processing personal information and then uses the information). By posting photographs and stories about their children, parents are acting as the responsible party processing the personal information of their children. However, parents are also acting as the person who consents to the processing of this personal information. Is it right that a parent can be both the responsible party and the consenting party? Isn’t this a ‘gap’ in POPI which leaves children without adequate protection in terms of their right to privacy?
Our Constitution makes a child’s best interests of paramount importance in each matter affecting the child. The Constitutional Court in S v M 2008 (3) SA (CC) explained that a child has “his or her own dignity. If a child is to be constitutionally imagined as an individual with a distinctive personality, and not merely as a miniature adult waiting to reach full size, he or she cannot be treated as a mere extension of his or her parents.” While POPI appears to inadequately protect a child’s right to privacy, the Constitution does.
There are obvious dangers associated with sharenting: providing predators with access to your child’s life, exposing your child to potential bullying by peers as a result of an embarrassing story or photo posted online, hindering your child’s chances of finding employment by posting about your child’s struggle with a learning disability, physical or mental health issue, etc. However, there are also a number of positives. A friend of mine who regularly posts about her daughter has connected with many other new and more seasoned “Instamoms” through her Instagram account. Together they have shared the highs and lows of parenting, providing a useful necessary support system for each other. They say it takes a village to raise a child, so much so that these women and their children have moved beyond the digital world to the physical and socialize with each other over weekends. When my friend’s daughter became ill and was admitted to hospital, the Instamoms visited her and provided my friend with much needed support and love.
When my friend and I discussed the reason for the Instagram account she told me that it was a way of preserving memories which she might later share with her daughter – and a possible way of creating an additional income stream. One of my friend’s principal goals with her Instagram account is to generate followers which will establish her as an “influencer” and result in an additional revenue stream to be used for the betterment of her daughter’s life. While this is a noble goal on the face of it – and I do not doubt my friend’s intentions – does this amount to exploitation? Finding a way of generating income while spending time with your child will generally be viewed as being in the best interest of your child, but is it exploitative when your child becomes the means of generating that income. Is it then still in your child’s best interests?
Sharenting involves the careful consideration by a parent of their individual right to share about their own lives and their duty to act in the best interests of their child. On the one hand we want to encourage one another to reach out to the broader community, to provide spaces of support in a life that is increasingly difficult to navigate. On the other hand, we do not want to create an environment where our children are being exposed or exploited for financial gain. When questioning my friend about this difficult balancing act, she told about a rule of thumb: if you would not post that story or photograph about an adult, then don’t post it about your child. While this may not be the final word on sharenting, asking yourself this question should at least highlight the appropriateness of what you might like to share about your child.