Sharenting: What is it and are you doing it?

Professor Lisa Lazard looks the new digital phenomenon that is ‘sharenting’ and considers whether it’s a product of narcissism or societal pressures of parenting.

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By Pexels under CC0 licence under Creative-Commons license

What is sharenting?

Parenting is now an inescapable theme on social media. Many parents, particularly those with young children, post pictures of baby scans, milestone moments like the first day of school. Parental posting has perceived negatively — media commentaries and newspaper articles often describe the frequency of family photo uploads on social media as irritating and annoying. So much so that the term ‘sharenting’ earned a place in the Collins online dictionary in 2016, defined as “the habitual use of social media to share news, images, etc. of one’s children” (reference). One of the key issues with sharenting is it can be seen as a means of showing off online which has criticised in the popular press as a form of digital narcissism.

Research suggests that there are gendered patterns in the posting of family material. Mothers post more information about their children, particularly in the form of family photos than fathers. So key questions are ‘why are mothers doing these kinds of posts? And, ‘are parents, particularly mothers, just showing off when they post about their children’?

Why mothers?

It may come as no surprise that mothers typically share more on social media about their children than fathers.Although fathers are now — more than ever — far more involved in the day to day care of children, it’s still the case that mothers’ manage the more significant share of childcare. They broadly take primary responsibility for family photos and updates offline and historically led the curation of paper family albums and sharing of photos. So there are similarities with how mothers engage with others through pictures and updates on and offline.​

…photos are not just a representation of affection, but photo taking was a practice of familial intimacy. ​

Digital engagements

In one study I conducted, I interviewed mothers about the material they had posted on social media. The idea of ‘togetherness’ has long been important to our understanding of family in Western culture and this was important also to the photos chosen to upload. Being ‘together’ as a family was more important than other concerns such as worries about personal appearance. Family photos require people to stand close together, and this is particularly true of family selfies taken on smartphones to ensure everyone is in the frame representing family togetherness.Some of the women spoke about how their children requested selfies with their parents which suggests that photos are not just a representation of affection, but photo taking was a practice of familial intimacy. ​

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By ViktorHanacek under CC0 licence under Creative-Commons license

The mothers in this study talked about negative judgements by others on social media and of happy family photos as a means to mitigate that. Interestingly, and in contrast to the phenomenon of ‘sharenting, family photos often represent a relatively ‘safe’ and uncontroversial post. Many suggested photos of their children tended to attract — what they considered — a high number of ‘likes’ and positive comments compared to other kinds of posts. As one interviewee suggested, “It’s quite difficult to not like pictures of people’s kids.”. So the image of the happy family on social networking sites was at least in part, a defensive action to ward against conflict and troubled identities like “show off” or “attention seeker”.​

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By Sarah Schreiter under Creative Commons BY 4.0 license

Parenting pressures

Happy family photos and status updates in digital spaces are more complex than the phenomenon of ‘sharenting’ would imply. Posts respond to a number of relational concerns around online sharing within the normative parameters of social acceptability. As some of the mothers’ in the study note the ‘happy family’ and child-focused status updates are treated as fairly resistant to direct criticism and as such, posting in accordance with this theme is unlikely to provoke particular kinds of conflict. The focus on digital ‘likes’ — a calculable measure of ‘doing right’ — is, in a broad sense, a collaboration around standards and virtues of parenting.​

Dr Dr Lisa Lazard is a Lecturer in Psychology at The Open University. This article was previously published on OpenLearn in March 2018. Subscribe to our newsletter for more free courses, articles, games and videos.

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