In The Future, Will Your Kids Be Able To Sue You For Oversharing Online?

Sharents -- parents who overshare online -- are creating a digital footprint for their children before kids can give their consent.

Last month, Gwyneth Paltrow got herself into a bit of parenting pickle with her daughter Apple on Instagram when she shared a ski selfie of her and the teen with her 5.4 million followers. Apparently, she did not receive permission to post the photo, which irked the 14-year-old.

“Mom we have discussed this,” Apple, whose own profile is private, shared in the comments section of Paltrow’s post. “You may not post anything without my consent.”

The media jumped on the story of the “nonconsensual selfie” ― a tale that dovetailed nicely with another news story centered on a celeb oversharer that developed a few days later, when the singer Pink drew the ire of some on the internet after sharing an image of her 2-year-old son, sans diaper. In a second revised post, a strategic black scribble covered the toddler’s private parts.

“There’s something seriously wrong with a lot of you out there,” Pink wrote in the caption of the edited photo. “Going off about my baby’s penis? About circumcision??? Are you for real? As any normal mother at the beach, I didn’t even notice he took off his swim diaper.”

On Monday, the pop star told Ellen DeGeneres she was going to stop sharing photos of her kids on social media altogether because of the backlash.

Whether you believe the pics should have been posted or not, the Paltrow and Pink examples highlight a parenting divide that’s as modern as it gets. On one side, there’s the sharenters ― parents who spare no detail when posting about their kids, usually starting with that first grainy sonogram. On the other, you’ve got the privacy-minded parents who prefer to keep personal pics on the camera roll of their iPhone.

Even parents who opt not to post understand the urge. When her son was born a few years back, Abbey Sharp, a Toronto-based dietitian, and mom blogger and YouTuber at “Abbey’s Kitchen,” decided with her husband to only post about their newborn on a private Facebook group with friends and family who truly care about the baby.

“That was my choice, but I get wanting to post,” she said. “Being a social media ‘influencer,’ my entire life is documented and shared online, so it was heartbreaking to imagine not being able to share that very important major part of my life.”

Jenny Hutt, a radio personality and mom of two teens, took the opposite approach with sharing. She frequently posts about her kids, now 19 and 20, and even discusses them on her “Just Jenny” radio show on SiriusXM. For what it’s worth, she doesn’t understand all the fuss over Paltrow or Pink’s posts.

“I’m certain Apple Martin was being tongue in cheek with her mom as my daughter would be with me, and Pink is just way cool and I don’t think she was intending to post a ‘dick pic,’” Hutt said.

But even as a proud oversharer, Hutt recognizes the need for kid-approved boundaries.

“My kids are 20 and 19 and I still ask permission before posting about them on social media and before talking about them on my SiriusXM show,” she said. “I’m all for truth and vulnerability on social media but I’m also mindful of overexposure.”

Sharing on social media ― and risking overexposure ― is a slippery slope. At its best, Facebook and Instagram give your far-off grandma a peek at cute milestone moments in your kiddo’s life. At its worst, you get scary invasions of privacy and kids with a massive database of intel compiled about them before they’re enrolled in pre-K. (And then there’s something else entirely, like the mommy blogger who went viral last year for lamenting how few “likes” her 6-year-old brings in, compared with siblings.)

Critics of oversharing parents say it's not fair that kids are having their digital footprint created before they have a say in the matter.
Nicole Katano via Getty Images
Critics of oversharing parents say it's not fair that kids are having their digital footprint created before they have a say in the matter.

It all makes you wonder: Should we just let kids live without every moment being documented online? How much of a say should kids have in creating their own digital footprint?

And even if they are old enough to give you permission to post, does a 5- or 6-year-old really understand the complexities of how things get shared, commented on and go viral online?

“It’s certainly an issue which I have seen increasingly in my practice over recent years and it is a cause of concern and anxiety for teens,” said Genevieve von Lob, a psychologist and author of “Happy Parent, Happy Child: 10 Steps to Stress-free Family Life.”

“It’s understandable that as parents we adore our kids and love to share as much about them as possible,” von Lob said. “But by sharing endless pictures, you are creating a ‘digital tattoo’ that could stay with them for the rest of their lives.”

A digital tattoo, that, depending on the privacy settings of your account, will be visible to college and job recruiters, potential girlfriends or boyfriends, and everyone else for the rest of their lives. Do job scouts at Aiden’s dream employer really need to see a photo of baby Aiden learning to go potty like a big boy?

Suing a parent for sharing: Could it happen?

Some have suggested a lingering digital tattoo could have legal implications for parents once their child grows up. In 2016 in France, a viral online campaign urged parents to cut back on posting for their child’s privacy.

French police suggested that the images could attract sexual predators, and one legal expert cautioned that parents may face future lawsuits from their children for violating their privacy. Under French privacy law, anyone convicted of publishing and distributing images of another person without their consent can face up to one year in prison and a fine that’s equivalent to more than $50,000. That would apply to parents posting images of their kids as well.

Could a successful “sharenting” lawsuit ever happen in the U.S.? Probably not, said Mark Bartholomew, a University at Buffalo expert on cyberlaw.

For starters, there’s the parent-child immunity doctrine — the legal notion that a child cannot bring legal action against his or her parents for torts, or civil wrongs, parents inflict while the child is a minor.

Plus, as Bartholomew told HuffPost, there’s really no precedent or laws directed specifically at parent oversharing online. (A parent could claim a request to remove a pic violates their First Amendment right to free speech.)

It's very unlikely we'll see a successful sharenting lawsuit anytime soon, one legal expert said
Johner Images via Getty Images
It's very unlikely we'll see a successful sharenting lawsuit anytime soon, one legal expert said

Bartholomew said an aggrieved child would need to find a legal hook for their complaint.

“Claims of emotional distress and defamation or other privacy violations come to mind, but there would be a very high bar for success,” he said. “A child claiming that a parent’s posting of photos caused her emotional distress would have to prove that the parent’s behavior was ‘extreme’ and ‘outrageous,’” he explained.

Given how commonplace it is for parents to post every waking moment of their childrens’ lives on Instagram or Facebook these days, Bartholomew said it’s unlikely such a legal claim would succeed.

Should mommy bloggers be judged differently?

So, what does Bartholomew think of mommy bloggers and “influencers” who make their living doing a sort of mom-meets-“The Truman Show” act online, where everything is content, no matter how personal or potentially awkward it might be for their kids?

“Parents like that definitely need to consider using pseudonyms for their kids,” Bartholomew said. “The problem is, readers are attracted to what they see as genuine revelations, and using real names may help the blogging parent seem more authentic. There’s a tension between winning over audiences and preserving a private space for children to grow up.”

A perfect example of that tension is seen in Christie Tate, a mommy blogger who made headlines last year when she wrote a Washington Post piece explaining why she still blogs about her kids, even though her fourth-grade daughter hates it.

The daughter apparently asked her mom if all the essays and photographs she had found by Googling could be taken down. “I told her that was not possible,” wrote Tate. “And furthermore, ‘I’m not done exploring my motherhood in my writing.’”

Would a kid who has pages and pages of embarrassing online anecdotes have a better chance of winning legal action?

“Yes, the more information that’s posted out there about a child, the more potential there is for some sort of legal violation,” Bartholomew said. “As influencers and lifestyle bloggers try to seem provocative and authentic to their audiences, they might eventually cross a line into posting something that the law considers too extreme.”

That said, in court, an image ― an embarrassing full-frontal of your kid, for instance ― has more power to shock than writing from a mommy blog.

“One can imagine a parent posting a photograph of their child on their parenting blog that is so intrusive or disturbing that a judge would consider this to be outrageous behavior by the parent,” Bartholomew said. “To my knowledge, there hasn’t yet been a lawsuit like this in the United States, but it could definitely happen.”

Some parents are getting more sensible about what they post.

The more we talk about the culture of online sharing, the more refined our boundaries around it become. Parent bloggers are as vocal as ever, even the ones who stay mum about their kids’ lives. For every parent who posts a selfie featuring their baby’s bare bottom or a barf-y onesie, there’s another mom or dad eager to explain why they post in moderation, or not at all.

Ray FitzGerald ― a parenting coach who runs the site “Raise a Legend” and doesn’t post his daughter’s name or age online ― often tells his readers to follow the “three P rules of posting.”

There’s privacy (“Make sure your privacy settings aren’t public. Treat your child’s private images like your Social Security number and don’t hand it out like digital candy”); perception (“If you wouldn’t want a similar picture of yourself shared, then you likely shouldn’t share one of your child”); and permission (a rule he admits mostly applies to older kids).

FitzGerald’s daughter will turn 20 in a few weeks. Her digital footprint is entirely hers. Though he acknowledged the no-posting policy he and his wife came up with isn’t for everyone, he wishes parents would be a little more thoughtful in what they share.

“The best thing a parent can do is pause before posting a picture of their child online,” FitzGerald said. “If it’s still something you think is important to post after a few hours, then go for it. Far too often, we throw things on social media on a whim and don’t think about the long-term ramifications.”

Recognize that you’re the sole guardian of your child’s public image for now, not just a proud parent who feels compelled to share.

“Don’t create a situation where he or she may have to explain a past post from a parent,” FitzGerald said. “It’s just not worth it.”

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