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The Pitfalls of Online Oversharing

Why parents need to be vigilant about what they share about their children online – on social media and otherwise.
Leah Plunkett

Children aren't the only people compromising their privacy online. Grown ups are also taking to to digital media and technology, and oversharing information about the children in their lives too. Leah Plunkett, a law professor and parent, wants adults to think twice before talking about children online. In this episode of the Harvard EdCast, Plunkett, author of Sharenthood: Why We Should Think Before We Talk About Our Kids Online, discusses all the way adults — including educators — overshare details about children and how to take steps to safeguard their actions.


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast.

Leah Plunkett wants adults to start thinking more about all the ways they talk about their kids online. She's a law professor and parent studying the ways grownups share about children digitally in ways that are blurry and even involuntary with the potential to compromise a child's identity, privacy and maybe even their future.

When I spoke to Leah, I discovered it's not just moms and dads guilty of being sharents, so I asked her what she means by sharenting.

Leah Plunkett: When I say sharenting, I'm referring to all the ways that parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, educators, coaches, directors and other trusted adults engage in activities with children's private information using digital technology. That is a broad definition. It is broader than the definition that is typically used.

Sharenting is a word that is kind of coming into vogue more now than it has been and when it's used in the media or in discussions, it tends to mean what parents do on social media. So it is limited to parents and it is limited to social media. And my definition recognizes that that is only the tip of the iceberg when we think about all the ways that the children in our care, whether our care is at home or at school are having us, the adults in their lives transmit, post, upload, you name it, we're doing it with their private information on one or more digital technologies.

Jill Anderson: We know there's people out there who have made decisions to keep their kids offline or not share material online, and I think just as you mentioned, a lot of that thinking is solely to stuff like Facebook or Instagram, those social media sites. But you seem to say there's ways that we share it almost involuntarily. So I'm curious what that means when we are sharenting and kind of not even aware we're doing it.

Leah Plunkett: That means all the ways that we have technologies in our homes, in our cars, in our schools, on our bodies that are picking up information really around the clock. To give some probably pretty familiar examples of things we do that we may not realize are sharenting ... And by the way, these technologies are designed to trick us really. They're designed to sort of say, "Hey, I'm just a phone sitting here on your desk. I'm just a refrigerator. I'm just a cute little artificial intelligence enabled assistant." Well, that one may be less tricky. But a lot of these technologies, Jill, because they are so familiar to us in so much part of our routine, we don't realize what they're picking up and transmitting.

So our cell phones, for instance. Our cell phones, our laptops, our tablets can be getting everything from geolocation information and metadata to, in some cases with certain apps, they can be recording movements or conversations even when we might not realize they're doing it and they're not supposed to be doing it. With the smart assistants in our homes, they are picking up more information than we realize. With sensors in school systems and video surveillance, those are just some of the ways that we are engaging in sharenting without consciously thinking, "Hey, I'm going to take a picture or I'm going to take a video and put it on Facebook or Instagram.

Jill Anderson: I do see people out there nowadays, I see some chatter about nothing's private anymore, so why even bother trying.

Leah Plunkett: Definitely.

Jill Anderson: What are the dangers in that when it comes to our children?

Leah Plunkett: The dangers of giving into the idea that privacy is dead when it comes to our kids is that unlike us as adults, they have not yet had a chance to have a childhood and adolescence that is protected; a childhood and adolescence where they can make mischief, even make some mistakes and grow up better for having made them by figuring out who they are, what makes them tick and how they want to be in the world.

Privacy is uniquely important, Jill, for kids and teenagers because unlike adults where even though of course we're all still learning, we've at least had time to kind of get a handle on who we are and take our lumps a little bit, but our kids haven't. And if we're depriving them of that space, we really do run the risk of depriving them of, or at least limiting their ability to become the grownups that they're meant to be.

Jill Anderson: But do you think adults really understand that?

Leah Plunkett: No. It is really hard to disengage from the ways that we are always connected and always on. The tech companies and tech providers don't want us to disengage from that. They don't want us to be mindful of the fact that a smart toy that we give our kids that's talking with it is also recording our child and sharing that information back with an app or a software system that might underlie that talking teddy bear.

And so it is hard for us to be aware of what we're doing with all of our intimate daily choices. It's also really hard for us to zoom out and think very big picture about the kind of overarching space we're creating for our kids and our teens overall.

Jill Anderson: Can you just talk a little bit more about this space that we're kind of creating for our kids and teens?

Leah Plunkett: When I talk about the space we're creating for our kids and teens, I'm talking about a reality that is unique to this 21st century moment where what used to be the quintessentially private space of the home or a quasi private space that belonged to the community, like a school or a playground, no longer has recognizable defensible brick and mortar boundaries.

I'm the tail end of Gen-X; I'm 40. When I was growing up and even people a little younger than I am, we goofed around, we passed notes, we took pictures we shouldn't have taken, we made embarrassing mixed tapes. We did all the things that you do is as kids and teenagers, but there wasn't a record of them. And that had a couple of really important protective factors for us, both in terms of our lived experience and in terms of the kind of growing up we were able to do.

One thing it meant, Jill, was that we weren't vulnerable to bad actors hacking into our private data or inadvertently stumbling upon our data. The second thing it meant is that we could forget, with the exception of maybe a handful of people who were in there with us or that one person who still has pictures in the shoe box under the bed in their parents' house, you could get over it. You can move on from it. You wouldn't have to worry about it coming back.

It also means that for us, unlike for our kids, future decision makers and gatekeepers would not have had any conceivable way to have a window into at what age did we talk, what was our math or reading pace when we were in kindergarten, when were we toilet trained. All these things that are now digitally tracked and recorded often by different caregivers, and are we guaranteed that each and every piece of that digital data will wind up aggregated, shared, down streamed, analyzed and acted upon? No, we're definitely not, but we also don't have comprehensive federal privacy laws in place that provide blanket bedrock protection that that won't happen.

Jill Anderson: How do you think we get a handle on something like this? We live in a time when people seem to share everything. We have families and parents who make that their business; sharing their lives online. That's how they make their money.

Leah Plunkett: Commercial sharents.

Jill Anderson: Yeah. What do you recommend adults start to do or think about when it comes to sharing aspects of their kids online?

Leah Plunkett: I recommend that in our individual capacities we use a value's based system to re-orient ourselves a bit. I am not advocating that we break our cell phones. I'm not advocating that we go back to Polaroid pictures. What I am saying is that understanding that it is truly impossible for us, even a privacy nerd and mom like me to go through every privacy policy and terms of use and terms of service for every gizmo and gadget, especially around the holiday time when you're buying more things, that's really difficult. So instead let's think about common sense, kind of old fashioned values that may resonate with us and try to implement them.

I can give a concrete example. One value that might animate you would be the value of respect. So we as parents especially, but also other trusted adults have incredible permission under the law to decide whether, when, how, why and with whom to sharent. But we can say, "Okay, I really respect my child's privacy. I really respect the adults they will become. So can I use a low tech or a no tech way of engaging with them on something that might be sensitive?"

So instead of using an app to track diaper changes or even using a smart diaper that can record urine output, no joke, can we just go for a low tech or a no tech way of having that particular interaction with them because we respect their privacy and their bodily integrity even when their body is itty bitty. I would say we can. And that kind of response isn't throw out your cell phone, it's not try to read the fine print on the smart diaper box. It's take a step back, think about what you value, do you really need a smart diaper.

Jill Anderson: I'm wondering how you recommend people balance their own limits that they have as parents, but when you start to get down that rabbit hole of how many people are online and your family and that kind of thing, what do you recommend about how you handle those situations?

Leah Plunkett: That is such a tricky question and I have been getting versions of it a lot. Here's what I recommend when you are dealing with sharenting practices by other people. So not you, not your spouse, but grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, parents of kids' friends and others in your extended network. The same way that we have to have other public health conversations, we have to start getting a little more comfortable having these.

So no one thinks it's strange if you drop your kid off for a play date and say, "Hey, heads up, she has a peanut allergy." No one thinks it's strange if you drop your kid off for a play date and you ask about what the policy is on video games or watching R rated movies or guns in the house or anything like that. But people do find it a little odd if you affirmatively bring up, "Hey, just so you know, we're a no sharenting household." Or, "We're a minimalist sharenting household." Or to put it more bluntly, "We don't put pictures of our kids on the internet."

I would encourage a couple of things. The first is that we all try to get more comfortable making those conversations normal. And I recognize that it's easier said than done, and I recognize any other conversation in this space, you have to pick your moments and pick your audience.

So do you necessarily need to have the video game conversation when you are dropping a child off for a half hour long play date while you run to the grocery store? No, unless you feel really strongly about it, you'll be back in half an hour, no big deal. Do you really need to have a sharenting conversation with the well-meaning great uncle three times removed who truly doesn't understand Facebook and is probably just trying to do something nice? If the picture's not particularly embarrassing, maybe you don't, maybe you let it go.

But I do think that we all have to work together as individuals to try to create a new norm here. And there are ways to depersonalize it. Pretty much any day you open a major media outlet, there'll be something saying that big tech and big data have had another privacy problem or a security problem. It's very easy to say, "Gosh, you know, I was just listening to the radio on my way over here and it was reminding me about the lack of privacy on social media. I don't mean to be pushy, but if you want to text me pictures of what the kids are up to, great, but I prefer that they not go online." I don't think that's that much to ask.

But really it's up to all of us to create a new set of norms around having those sharenting talks.

Jill Anderson: Right. And I almost feel like that's easier because it's tangible. Some of the harder things are what we can't really see. When does it become so much of a slippery slope where we're so worried about sending our kid to someone's house and we know they have an Alexa or something ... like some other app or something that you don't even know about. And I think the slippery slope is when does it end?

Leah Plunkett: I love that question. What I will say is I think other people's homes, if your child is just a temporary visitor there are different than a place like a school or a summer camp. If your child is going to be having a play date or a sleepover at a home with an Alexa, that's one where they're not going to be there for that long. We don't know what is happening with data storage, transmission, sharing and use, but it feels less risky to me to have your child's data mixed in with the data of that particular household.

Now having said that, there's some pragmatic conversations you still may want to have with the parent or with your kid depending on your kid's age to make sure that a younger child doesn't inadvertently order a bunch of things through Alexa or an older child or a middle school child doesn't inadvertently engage in dangerous behavior with an Alexa. But I would be less worried about the privacy aspects from a quick visit for something like that.

I would though be very worried about kids' privacy when it comes to digital technologies in schools or camps or anywhere that they go regularly. And those are different spaces than other people's homes. Schools are regulated by state and federal privacy laws and a whole broader legal system. Camps are as well, although less so than schools. But I think when it comes to the digital technologies around us rather than social media, the places where I would be focused on having those conversations and really drilling down and getting answers to your privacy questions would be schools, camps or other regularly visited spaces.

Jill Anderson: What do we need to think about when we're sending our kids to school or summer camp when it comes to this privacy issue?

Leah Plunkett: We are in a space now where pretty much all schools and I would say most summer camps and other extracurricular spaces are using digital technologies in one or more ways, whether it's to relate to the kids directly in a classroom or a teaching setting or a behind the scenes office setting. I think we as parents should be asking upfront what kinds of technologies are you using and what are you doing to protect my child's privacy. When it comes to K through 12 public schools in particular, they are the most highly regulated by state and federal student privacy laws.

So actually a school system or individual school that takes those privacy obligations very seriously and have the resources of a technologist, a lawyer, a chief information officer, whatever kind of multi-stake holder team it is, if a school or school system has the ability to thoroughly and thoughtfully vet products and make sure that they comply with security and privacy standards, your child could actually be safer privacy wise in a school than in a home.

Jill Anderson: It's not often I feel like you hear that, that you don't need to be as concerned about what happens with the school as you do at home. It's interesting because it's different than what you would normally suspect.

Leah Plunkett: I should say it does vary by school system. There are school systems that lack the focus and the resources to put behind it. But absolutely, Jill, in a school system that is focused on it and has the resources to carry out an implementation of focusing on protecting digital privacy, no question, your child's privacy may be safer at school than at home.

Jill Anderson: What do you come across with teachers and educators; are there a lot of problems with that profession sharing information about kids online?

Leah Plunkett: I do think that educators love what they do, they love their kids and they take a lot of pride in it. They also have one of the hardest and most important jobs in the country and so of course understandably they would need to blow off steam from time to time. I have both seen and also heard accounts of other people seeing the Facebook rant or if not the Facebook rant, the cute Facebook picture of, "Look what my class did today."

So I do think something that all schools can do, even if they're not doing this complicated vetting of the swipe card system that they're using to manage school lunch purchases, for instance, even if they're not doing that, a really concrete and valuable, no cost, not complex thing to do, would be to remind everybody in a school who is interacting with kids, don't take pictures of kids and put them on your personal or school social media feeds without getting permission from parents.

Jill Anderson: I hadn't thought about that as being maybe something you shouldn't do. I mean even though once you say it, it seems so obvious.

Leah Plunkett: It's interesting because social media is designed to be conversational and it is designed to be at our fingertips and all around us so that we just think of it as having a conversation the same way we would by the proverbial water cooler. In that light, of course it makes perfect sense if that's what's on your mind, if that's what happened in your day, then instead of whispering it to your buddy over coffee, just put it on your Facebook page or on Twitter.

There can be powerful movements that grow out of the personal is political or the personal is the impetus for change in a non-political realm, that's important and social media can catalyze it. But when it comes to our kids in particular, whether they're in our home or in our schools or in our neighbor's house, we need to take it upon ourselves to have a heightened sense of ethical and practical concern about what we're sharenting because the law will not regulate it for us. It will regulate it more in schools if the laws are being followed, but even then the regulation is incomplete.

Jill Anderson: Do you think that there will come a time when there is some more regulation around this type of stuff?

Leah Plunkett: I do, Jill, but I don't know when. The reason I am optimistic is that privacy is a space where you see people across the political spectrum increasingly engaged because it affects all of us and because it matters to our private lives, to our professional lives and to our civic lives too. If you're trying to raise kids or be an adult in a democracy yourself, you need to know that you have the space to be who you are, to have your own ideas, to make your own decisions and not worry about tracking, surveillance, profiling and so on.

But I would have to be far better at reading the tea leaves than I am when it comes to figuring out exactly what the constellation would need to be for the stars to align to have it actually change at the federal level. The States have had a lot more activity in both the student privacy specifically and then the consumer privacy more broadly. The new California Consumer Privacy Law will go into effect next month. We've had hundreds of bills introduced and many dozens of them passed at the state level around student privacy specifically between 2013 and now. 2013 really marking the start of the current wave of interest in student digital data privacy. So when it comes to state law, there has been a lot of rapid and robust legal change.

Jill Anderson: So in the meantime, the recommendation is to stop and think about what you're doing?

Leah Plunkett: Stop and think about what you're doing and develop a few common sense rules of thumb.

One that I use for myself that I recommend and it's seasonally appropriate, is what I call the holiday card rule of thumb. If you would have in the brick and mortar era, put this picture or this piece of news in a newsletter that you sent to hundreds of people ranging from your great aunt to your boss, then at least with respect to not embarrassing your child, you're probably okay. Now, of course that doesn't help with the kind of repurposing or data extraction or data analytics that can be done on it, but when it comes to your child's felt experience, you're probably not embarrassing them more than children are always going to be embarrassed by their parents.

The other rule of thumb I have for myself is when possible go low tech or no tech. So is it possible for me to do my job without my cell phone? No, because I need email. Is it possible for me to know how to change my child's diaper without a smart diaper telling me when it's wet? Absolutely.

Jill Anderson: Well, thank you so much Leah for sharing all these great thoughts and tips.

Leah Plunkett: Thank you, Jill. It's been a lot of fun.

Jill Anderson: Leah Plunkett is the author of Sharenthood: Why We Should Think Before We Talk About Our Kids Online. She is also a Faculty Associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard and an Associate Dean and Associate Professor at University of New Hampshire School of Law.

I'm Jill Anderson. This wraps up the fall season of the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.


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