Photo of Leah Plunkett and the book Sharenthood

Q&A with Leah A. Plunkett, author of Sharenthood

To celebrate the publication of Sharenthood: Why We Should Think before We Talk about Our Kids Online, we sat down with author Leah A. Plunkett to talk about what sharenting is and what adults can do to balance sharing with children’s rights to privacy.

MIT Press: One of the things I remember growing up alongside the social media boom is the crackdown of parental moderation, which largely stemmed from the fear of talking to strangers online. Now, your book addresses how parents are throwing caution to the wind when, if anything, privacy concerns enabled by the internet and social media are even greater. How did parents make this shift from wariness to embracing online sharing?

Leah Plunkett: Online sharing has become so ubiquitous that many parents do not even realize they are engaging in it. Now that we can share details about our lives and, by extension, our kids’ lives with devices we hold on our hands, wear on our bodies, and put in our homes, we are have lost much of our awareness that we are letting in not just friends but also strangers, companies, government actors, and more into our most intimate spaces when we swipe, click, open the refrigerator, or breathe. We no longer go online; we exist online.

MITP: When Facebook gained momentum, we had conversations with our parents and teachers regarding what potential employers/schools see and assume based on the content we create. Now, a child’s web presence can be curated before they’re even born. How do you recommend parents evaluate what they should and shouldn’t share about their children?

LP: With younger children, parents could start by trying to put themselves in their children’s shoes and asking: “if my parents had shared this type of information about me, how would I have felt about that decision when I got older and realized the information had been shared? How about when I became a teenager or young adult—how would I have felt about it then?” If any of these answers falls into the sad emoji range, then parents should strongly consider holding off on sharenting. With older children and teenagers, parents could start by talking with their kids and coming up with a family privacy plan to set some shared boundaries.

MITP: You mention coming up with a family privacy plan. Can you describe what this might look like or what it should cover and how it should be implemented?

LP: With younger children, parents likely would need to kick off the planning themselves but could still look to learn about and incorporate information about their children’s comfort zones. To be effective, this plan needs to be comprehensive. It should be shared(!) with other adult caregivers for the family, like grandparents and baby-sitters. It should set boundaries at three levels: principles, rules of thumb to act on that principle, and specific dos/don’ts. For example, a principle could be: “protect space to play.” A rule of thumb could be: “when your child is doing something they wouldn’t do in public, keep that experience private.” A specific don’t could then be: “don’t share videos of your ten-year-old practicing her moves for the family dance at elementary school.”

MITP: You discuss the rise of commercial sharenting, where parents use their family life to generate income through blogging, YouTube, and Instagram. This trend has sparked debates even on national news, for example when a mom blogger remarked that one of her children got “less likes” than others. Do you see any social or emotional consequences for children whose parents practice commercial sharenting?

LP: The child stars of commercial sharenting are put in a bizarre position where they go through their real lives playing the role of themselves for thousands, sometimes millions, of strangers. With this pressure to perform in their daily lives, they may be deprived of private space in which to play—to make mischief and mistakes and find out who they are through having done so. Playing is at the heart of growing up, of achieving agency and autonomy. Commercial sharenting can infiltrate that space, like Captain Hook and his pirates skulking through Neverland.

MITP: Kids we never meet grow up before our very eyes online, a stark contrast to the advent of social media when we knowingly logged on and began posting and sharing. This issue is as much about consent as it is about privacy, with some parents now refusing to share images of their children online and restricting family members from sharing such content as well. How else can we give children agency and security when so much of our lives is hinged upon digital technology?

LP: Parents, teachers, and other trusted adults can empower children to understand digital technology and to regard it as a source both of opportunity and challenge (as is true of many parts of life!). The same way we work with our kids on how to enjoy playing on the playground (have fun but don’t hit each other) or how to take to the open road (pick a good soundtrack but don’t hit other cars), we can work with them on their digital citizenship. If we give them age-appropriate ways to make choices about digital technology, to be part of the consent process that is essential to establishing privacy and other boundaries, we support their development of both personal agency and the sense of security that comes from feeling empowered to move through the world with the knowledge you need to find your way.

MITP: The ubiquity of the internet allows people to see your silliest blunders and prettiest pictures, but the darker side of sharing leaves personal data exposed as well. Children are susceptible to identity theft through a veritable data trial provided by parents and schools that use technology to track and monitor kids. How can users inform themselves on data protection, and to what extent should we hold providers and digital services responsible for protecting the information of ourselves but especially our children?

LP: Understandably, users often feel overwhelmed trying to parse the dense privacy policies and terms of use that digital technology providers post about their products or services. Add to the dense prose that these policies are often subject to change without notice (or explicit user consent), and it can quickly feel like an exercise in futility to do more than click “accept” when that screen pops up. Fortunately, there are resources from many types of organizations—including non-profit, academic, governmental, and industry—that can help translate technology providers’ terms into a language that users can understand. For example, Common Sense Media offers privacy evaluations of popular educational technology apps. Users can also make their voices heard in favor of increased accountability by providers for protecting youth (and adult) information by shopping for services and products that offer easy to understand and reliable privacy guarantees, as well as asking lawmakers and regulators to pass thoughtful and trustworthy new privacy laws.

Sharenthood is available as a print, audio, and ebook today. Thanks to support from the MIT Libraries, we are also pleased to present an open access version of the book on the Pubpub platform. This interview as conducted by Zoe Kopp-Weber.