What are the effects of a childhood documented online?

12th September 2016



How many photos of the average child do you think will be posted online by their fifth birthday? Fifty? A hundred? Five hundred?

Not even close. Nominet has released some striking new statistics showing that, on average, parents will have posted 1,498 photos of their child on social media by the time the child turns five. Mums and dads are sharing nearly 300 photos online each year. Given that this represents a 54% increase since last year, it’s possible that by the time today’s infants start school, 1,500-odd photos will be a conservative estimate.

We’re entering uncharted territory here. This is the first generation to have grown up with their lives documented in such detail, and shared with such a wide potential audience. Digital technology means it’s never been easier or cheaper to capture every moment via photos or video, and the ubiquity of social media means these moments can be instantly shared with a social circle far beyond family and close friends.

How are today’s toddlers going to feel about this when they grow up? What will it be like when schoolmates, romantic partners, or colleagues have the ability to look up your baby photos? Will it become the new norm, something to be shrugged off or laughed about, or a source of pride in just how cute you were? Will it be a source of embarrassment and discomfort? We don’t know, and we should perhaps be thinking about it a lot more than we are.

There are, of course, precedents. Sharing the family photo album with an adoring (or too-polite-to-decline) houseguest is a time-honoured tradition. But an album shared on social media differs from one confined to physical form in a number of key ways. Foremost among these is the size of the potential audience. Nominet’s study found that the top three platforms where parents share photos of their children are Facebook (54%), Instagram (16%) and Twitter (12%). On average, parents have 295 Facebook friends, 57 Instagram followers, and 69 Twitter followers. Only 10% of parents would say that nearly all their Facebook friends are actually true friends offline, and more than a third admit that over 50% of their Facebook friends are online friends who they would not call a ‘true friend’ or say hello to if they bumped into them in the street.

A second key difference is one of control. You have far less control over a photo uploaded to a social media platform than you do over a hardcopy. This is amplified by a widespread lack of knowledge about privacy settings. Nominet’s study quizzed parents’ knowledge of Facebook’s privacy settings, and 24% answered all ten of the true/false questions incorrectly. Only 10% said they were confident in managing their Facebook privacy settings, half said they understood only the basics, and 39% said they were unsure.  85% of parents said they hadn’t checked their privacy settings in over a year. Using social media as a replacement for your own photo albums or hard drive storage could be risky, as technical glitches mean you could lose photos. Additionally, some social networks obtain the rights to your images once you’ve posted them. And once a picture is uploaded to social media, it can be very difficult to remove all traces of it.

The sheer number of photos taken, and the ease with which these can be published online, can lead to a risk of ‘oversharing’. Parents sharing photos online is so common it has even given rise to its own term, ‘sharenting’. At worst, oversharing, particularly inadvertent sharing of information such as location, can lead to safety concerns. But more likely is the risk of sharing more about a person than they want you to, and causing them annoyance, embarrassment or upset — either at the time, or in future. Our study found only 16% of parents always ask a person’s permission before sharing an image of them online. And, while a third of parents always expect other parents to ask permission when posting a photo of their child, 36% don’t adopt the same approach themselves. On average, parents have uploaded a photo of someone else’s child nearly 30 times in the last year.

All this isn’t to say that the internet isn’t a wonderful tool for parents. It can be an excellent source of information and advice, and give mums and dads access to a wide, supportive community of people navigating similar experiences. But when it comes to social media, the clear lesson is to share with care. Perhaps the first step is to each check our privacy settings and to spring clean our contacts – it certainly couldn’t hurt.