WARNING: Parents on Social Media

by KeShonna Jackson ’24

Parents often share photos and stories of their children online. It can be a way to express adoration for their children and to connect with distant loved ones. This practice now has a name: sharenting.

But just as there is over-sharing, there is over-sharenting. Sometimes a parent’s post of their child can be embarrassing or inappropriate. These posts may even violate the child’s privacy, putting photos or stories on the internet that the child may not want there. Every mention of a person on social media, even childhood photos, shapes their digital footprint—the image of a person formed by online data that can persist indefinitely. Sharenting has the potential to harm or help this image.

In the spring of 2020, three Cornell undergrads, Sterling Williams-Ceci ’21, Annika Pinch ’20, and Gillian Grose ’20, decided that they wanted to bring more awareness to sharenting. It was a choice that ended up defining the next step in each of their academic careers.

Putting Theories to the Test

“Parents posting about their children in general isn't a problem but can become problematic when they're sharing very detailed information that the kids might later find embarrassing,” Pinch says. “For example, if they've shared naked baby pictures or things about behavioral problems or crushes at school, it can become a problem [for the kids]. When you’re posting online, information stays forever, so parents have to be careful about what they post.”

Williams-Ceci, Pinch, and Grose met in COMM/INFO4800: Behavioral Science Interventions, a course developed and co-taught by Neil A. Lewis Jr., Communication, and Rene F. Kizilcec, Information Science. The combination of information science and communication piqued the interest of all three students, even though none of them had specialized in these fields.

The main task of the class: to create an experiment that identified a social problem and attempted to change attitudes toward the issue using what Lewis and Kizilcec called an intervention.

“[Rene Kizilcec and I] wanted to design a class that would give students the opportunity to dive into theories about how to change behaviors, and then put those theories to the test,” says Lewis. “Our goal was to create a learning environment in which students would have to think through the forces that affect people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors; what those forces mean for interventions, policies, and other efforts to change people’s behaviors; and the ethical implications of such efforts.”

Williams-Ceci and Pinch, both psychology majors, were fascinated by the online world and wanted to do something involving online behavior. Grose, a human development major, wanted to look at parent-child relationships. They spent days sifting through possible topics until they stumbled across sharenting. Related to all three of the researchers’ interests, as well as being culturally relevant and under-studied, sharenting was the perfect topic.

A Parent Intervention

The group devised an online-based experiment geared toward parents with children under the age of 18. The group’s intent was to make parents aware of what sharenting was and to help them recognize posts that cross the line into over-sharenting. They hoped to influence parents’ attitudes so they would become more reluctant to share inappropriate posts about their children, but still be willing to post appropriate ones. The researchers determined which posts were inappropriate and appropriate using a previously published paper about sharenting as well as input from their classmates.

Parents were recruited through a digital survey platform that determined their eligibility and then prompted them with a questionnaire that Williams-Ceci, Pinch, and Grose had created. The survey showed the parents various photos of children, asking which they thought were appropriate to post and which were not, and also questioned their views on permission and posting with their child’s consent.

After the parents’ initial attitudes were recorded, the intervention came in the form of a video excerpt from The Atlantic. The intervention discussed a child’s right to privacy and the harmful impacts sharenting can have.

To test the effects of the intervention, the researchers divided the participants into three groups. One group of parents simply watched the video, another had to watch the video and then summarize it, and the third group, the control group, watched a video unrelated to sharenting.

“Based on prior research, we thought that watching the video alone would change attitudes, but that summarizing the video in their own words would change them more,” Williams-Ceci says.

After the intervention, the parents answered the same questions they had responded to at the beginning of the experiment. If their answers changed, it suggested their attitudes toward sharenting had changed.

When analyzing the completed questionnaires, Williams-Ceci, Pinch, and Grose found that their results weren’t exactly as they expected.

“We found that our intervention also changed how much parents chose to post appropriate photos. That’s something to be really cautious about.”

“We found that the video alone didn’t do anything,” Williams-Ceci says. “It was only when parents wrote a summary of it [that their attitudes changed]. That was unexpected, but understandable. If you’re just watching a video, you might not really be concentrating. But if you’re asked to write about it, it reinforces it in your mind.”

Within the group whose attitudes toward sharenting had changed, the researchers found another surprising result.

“We found that our intervention also changed how much parents chose to post appropriate photos. That’s something to be really cautious about,” Grose says.

Sharenting in itself is not a harmful practice. Posts of events such as birthdays, Little League games, and award ceremonies have the potential to uplift and improve the parent-child relationship. According to Grose, many children like to be shown off by their parents, but only in a manner that the child approves of. “We're not putting blame on parents [for every instance of sharenting]. We're simply interested in how issues of privacy have the potential to harm parent-child relationships in the future,” she says.

Beyond a Class Paper

“We often prepare only children for the social media age, but parents are kind of thrown into that in a different role,” Grose says. “This connection where children are talking to their parents about [social media] is newer, because as children are growing older, they are experiencing the phenomenon of social media along with their parents.”

The study was one of the first to test an intervention on attitudes toward sharenting. Kizilcec and Lewis saw the significance and encouraged the group to write a paper on their experiment.

“Research on sharenting is timely and important, and the group designed a rigorous study that produced compelling evidence with real policy implications,” Kizilcec says. “It is significant to know how parents respond to videos about the dangers of sharenting, especially if they are given an opportunity to reflect on it.”

Williams-Ceci, Pinch, Grose, Lewis, and Kizilcec worked together to interpret the findings. The resulting paper, “Combating Sharenting: Interventions to Alter Parents’ Attitudes toward Posting about Their Children Online,” was accepted at an international child development conference and received an award for the top one percent of interdisciplinary studies presented. The full paper was published in the peer-reviewed journal Computers in Human Behavior.

“I think none of us anticipated that this would turn into anything more than a class paper,” Pinch says. “But we all felt that there was something there. This research has interesting implications, so we wanted to share our findings.”

All three student collaborators have since gone on to enroll in PhD programs, pursuing interests shaped by their journey together. Grose is studying human development at the University of Maryland; Pinch is exploring media, technology, and society at Northwestern University; and Williams-Ceci, who like Pinch was a psychology major, has altered course and is now a graduate student in information science at Cornell.

“Sometimes these impromptu things happen in your life. In this case, it snowballed into finding really interesting topics, huge collaborations, and lifelong relationships. I know I’ll be in touch with the professors and my student coauthors for a long time, even if we're not working together. But I never would have guessed, you know,” Williams-Ceci says.