Like most first-time parents, it was impossible to describe the joy and love I felt when my son was born. My social media accounts, however, might’ve told a different story: One week after our firstborn arrived, my husband and I had yet to share the baby's birth announcement on Facebook or Instagram. In fact, some people didn’t know we were expecting until six months into my pregnancy. We didn’t post an “old-fashioned” ultrasound photo on social media. Instead, we shared a cryptic crossword puzzle on Facebook, mainly as a curious social experiment to see who could decode the news first. As it turns out, I’m a part of a growing number of parents who, for various reasons, are backing away from online sharing—otherwise known as “sharenting”—or eschewing it altogether.
What Is Sharenting?
Sharenting is when parents post pictures and other content about their children on social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook.
As Facebook moved away from its college students-only platform, newcomers “were jumping into the deep end of the pool” and sharing anything and everything, "often without adjusting their privacy settings," explains Pamela Rutledge, Ph.D., director of the Media Psychology Research Center and professor at Fielding Graduate University. The result was parents often (unknowingly) posted photos of their kids and homes with visible street addresses visible or locations geotagged in real time. Friends and family tagging others in photos also inadvertently revealed personal details.
Meet the Expert
Pamela Rutledge, Ph.D., is the director of the Media Psychology Research Center and a professor at Fielding Graduate University.
Our birth announcement delay was unintentional. My husband and I spent nearly two weeks in the hospital due to a few minor health scares with our son, and we were exhausted. The last thing on our minds was finding a like-worthy photo and crafting a heartwarming caption. We barely mustered enough energy to send an announcement email with pictures to close family and friends. We recently welcomed our second child, a daughter, but this time, we purposefully withheld her birth news on social media until we felt we had enough time to bond.
To be clear, I’m not here to “sharent-shame” anyone—quite the opposite. Like any parent who believes they’ve got the cutest kids in the universe, I’m just as guilty of posting photos of my son and am still trying to find my own balance between respecting his privacy and oversharing my favorite moments with him.
To help me better navigate through this complex world of sharenting, I reached out to experts and other parents (who gave permission to publish their comments) for more insight.
To Share or Not to Share
Digital technology is advancing at faster-than-lightning speeds, and even experts struggle to understand the full ramifications of social media across all aspects of daily life and society, from personal identity to politics and beyond.
When I reached out to fellow members of a private Facebook group for moms, I discovered that I wasn’t alone. One mom, Nicole Jimenez, reveals she waited until she was seven months pregnant to announce the news on Facebook—and a week to post about her daughter’s birth. “I had already told those close to me, so it was really just a courtesy to my extended family. I didn’t feel like our news was really anyone else’s business,” she says.
Moderation is my mantra when it comes to posting photos of my children on Instagram or Facebook, but for other parents, sharing online is key to finding that essential support network. On that note, read on to find out why some modern parents are being mindful of what they post in real time—or declining to hit “share” on their life-changing news altogether.
Not in It for the "Likes"
“Humans need social connection—we can’t live without it both physically or psychologically. Getting that ‘Like’ triggers a reward in our brain; it’s part of what makes social media so compelling,” Rutledge says. Now that digital natives like myself—those who’ve grown up with the internet and social media—are becoming parents, we’re becoming increasingly conscious of how our own content-sharing affects our children’s privacy both in the digital and the "real" worlds, she explains.
Those early social media adopters, many of whom are now in their 20s and late 30s, are considering “the cost-benefit analysis” of sharing glimpses into their family’s private lives online, Rutledge says. They’re also at a point in their lives where they’re more comfortable in their own skin and settled into their careers. The maturity that often comes with age allows us to become less dependent on validation—via social engagement or otherwise—from others, she adds.
Admittedly, I do relish in watching the Instagram hearts roll in. The same is true when I obsessively double-tap all of my fellow parent friends’ photos of their kids learning to walk or videos of their tots saying the darndest things.
But as much as I adore sharing images of my son’s cherubic face, I find myself weighing the temporary satisfaction of the internet’s approval versus my child’s own ability to approve of that cute close-up—and most of the time, the latter prevails.
Kids Can't Control Their Online Presence
Another “cost” is the concern that “children might one day resent the disclosures made years earlier by their parents,” writes Stacey B. Steinberg, author of a recent study on children’s privacy in the digital age. “When parents share information about their children online, they do so without their children’s consent,” she continues. Those parents become “the gatekeepers of their children’s personal information and as narrators of their children’s personal stories.”
“It might be because my husband and I both work in advertising so we’re possibly a bit more aware, but in general, we just felt there was so much oversharing, and our baby isn’t yet able to voice whether or not he wants to be plastered all over the internet,” says Clare Anderson Van Tiel, another mom.
“We never made an announcement via social media that our wee boy arrived, and he’ll be one [soon]. The idea of having photos of my baby on the internet with his name linked to his image makes me a bit nervous, and I feel like it’s making him vulnerable,” Van Tiel continues. “I do post photos on Instagram that show the top of his head [for example], but I don’t like the idea of documenting his day-to-day life online for anyone to potentially access. In saying that, I totally understand why others do [in order] to share with friends and family, especially those who are overseas.”
Concerns Over Privacy
Privacy concerns have presented one case where celebrities really are just like us—or is it now vice versa? In 2013, Jennifer Garner and Halle Berry’s testimonies helped pass a California law to penalize paparazzi for harassing children of those in the public eye. More recently, Ashton Kutcher explained why he and his wife Mila Kunis chose not to post photos of their two kids on Instagram. “[We] have chosen a career where we’re in the public light, but my kids have not,” he said on an episode of Thrive Global Podcast, echoing the concerns in Steinberg’s study. “It’s their private life. It’s not mine to give away.”
Several successful women I spoke to also called out privacy as one of the reasons they created family- and friends-only social media accounts. Among them is a high-profile CEO who wished to stay anonymous—anyone scrolling through her public Instagram account would have no idea that she’d had a child at all.
When I reached out to the moms in Fashion Mamas, a members-only network for women who work in creative industries (I also happen to be a member), one mother explained how her career also influenced her decision to keep a “strict” private Instagram account for sharing photos of her son.
Kate Mazzuca, cofounder of female-led nightlife and events collective Woman., says her pregnancy felt too private to share. "I also had a very high-profile corporate job [at the time and] I always felt the need to [separate] my private and personal life. I didn’t really feel like anyone needed to know via social media; If you’re my friend, you got a text and you came to the house."
"Since starting my own agency, though, I’ve certainly embraced the philosophy of folding my personality and life into my work a bit more as both are so interwoven into the fabric of who I am," says Mazzuca, but she crosses the line at including her son in her public feed. "I really dislike when my son's face pops up on even someone else's social media without my consent. My close friends always ask if it's OK, and I say 'yes' about 50 percent of the time, but I feel really strongly about protecting his privacy regardless of who’s looking."
Entrepreneur Nikki Buonviri, another mom, went so far as to develop a text-based sharing service, Stellashare, for other social media–averse parents. “My husband and I had a difficult journey to become parents. We had an emergency surgery that led us to several IVF cycles and finally conceiving our daughter. We were so excited to share every last picture with our friends and family, but social media didn’t feel ‘right’ to us,” she says. “There’s nothing more personal and private than your child, [and] I didn’t want to share pics of her with my 500+ [Facebook] ‘friends.’”
“After our first child was born, my husband and I wanted to be able to easily and privately share photos and videos of our family’s daily moments without having to deal with privacy issues [including online predators], social commentary, annoying ads, or falling into the trap of ‘sharenting,’” she continues. “We thought there has to be something that works as easy as a text message because as new parents, that’s all you have time for.”
Ultimately, my husband and I decided to create a GroupMe chat solely for family. It was too time-consuming to create custom audience groups on Facebook, and there was no way for us to control which friends of friends might see our content. As a result, we’ve had many non-parent friends thanking us for our lack of baby photo overload and simultaneously encouraging us to at least share occasional photographic proof of our son’s cuteness on Facebook. (For now, we’re sticking with the former.)
Enjoying Precious Bonding Time
Our longer-than-usual hospital stay with our son didn’t just offer 24/7 access to lactation consultants and free newborn-sitting. Since we were too zombified to post any news on social media, our days were spent bonding with him instead of replying to congratulatory Facebook comments. There’d be plenty of time for all of that and more, and in retrospect, I’m happy we could truly live in the moment and appreciate every minute (yes, even the most frustrating ones).
Mom Alex Brandt-Barnard Rasmussen also waited several days before posting her exciting news. “We were [too] busy with a newborn; Instagramming about it wasn’t our top priority,” she explains. “We [also] wanted to share the news with the people closest to us first and make sure no one we hold dear found out on Facebook. We just shared it when it felt like time.”
Sensitivity Toward Other Parents
Like many new moms, I didn’t expect pregnancy to be such an uncertain and stressful process. The routine tests for screening birth defects and genetic issues often reveal zero cause for concern, and most parents assume they’ll deliver a “healthy” baby—but that’s not always the case for some parents-to-be. I certainly didn’t want to rub my good news in the face of friends who were having difficulties conceiving or whose pregnancies ended in heartbreak.
There are other parents who’ve cited sensitivity toward a friend’s pregnancy loss as a reason for not posting their announcements—or perhaps they don’t want to reopen their own painful wounds, says Rutledge. She notes that it’s not uncommon for women who’ve experienced miscarriages and other fertility issues to be more cautious about sharing news of a pregnancy, especially if there are life-threatening risks to the mother or baby.
Such was the case for FEED cofounder Ellen Gustafson, who documents her own story of loss on Cosmopolitan. Now a mother to a baby girl, Gustafson reveals that she didn’t share any baby bump photos due to “a mysterious, at least five-generation issue in my maternal lineage that caused unexplained male fetal death around mid-pregnancy.”
“I know the pain that baby announcements can instigate for some people, and I don’t begrudge anyone their sadness; I understand it,” she explains.
Seeking a Support Network
Mom Miranda Leah says sharing her birth experience online helped her feel empowered as a new mom. Her son was born nearly 11 weeks early, and “we actually didn’t even hold him until he was three days old,” she says. “We shared that he was born [and] some of our [neonatal intensive care unit] journey, and I was so glad I did,” mainly because she lived over six hours away from family and most of her friends. Many people “came out of the woodwork who had had [premature or NICU] babies, so having any kind of a support network was great,” says Leah.
When I reached out to my friend, social media manager Alyssa Curran, she had this to say: “I choose to share moments from my pregnancy and parenting experiences online because I find there’s a lot of power and camaraderie in connecting with people on the internet. Parenting is hard—no question about it—so being open to saying, ‘Hey, this is what’s happening,’ or choosing to go beyond posting just a carefully cultivated highlight reel of your life creates a really connected community and helpful resources.”
Also a recent two-time mom, Curran points out there's a negative side to sharing details on social media, too. "You’ll definitely be subject to opinions or bad advice you don’t necessarily want, but it’s part of what comes with the good, too," she says.
Like other tech-savvy parents, Curran finds value in forming meaningful friendships through Facebook groups, message boards, and her own blog. “Of course, I try to use common sense when posting, for both safety and privacy, but above all, I just think we’re lucky to have such a huge, connected resource available so immediately to us as parents,” she says. “It’s really cool that we can have this giant network of people all over the world to connect to, regardless of location. It’s also been fun to share details of my pregnancy and motherhood with family members who don’t live locally.”
Steinberg S. Sharenting: children's privacy in the age of social media. University of Florida Levin College of Law Research Paper No. 16-41. 2016;66:839-884.