When my kids were born, I mailed out birth announcements. The cream-colored stock cards listed their names, birth dates and weights. The one for my daughter had a tiny pink ribbon attached; my son’s had a pale blue one.
Forget the gendered ribbon colors; the entire concept of a paper birth announcement now seems incredibly antiquated, and far too slow. So when my granddaughter was born last year, I couldn’t wait to post her photo on social media. (After all, she was the most beautiful child that had ever been born.)
Fortunately, I thought to check with my daughter before I uploaded that first round-cheeked, tightly swaddled newborn shot taken moments after her birth. My daughter asked me to not only refrain from posting any pictures of her baby, but also the news that she’d arrived. First, it was my daughter’s news to share, and second, she had privacy concerns about sharing her child’s image online.
Like many grandparents — and some parents — negotiating the issue of consent around posting kids’ photos was new to me. But think about the implications. My paper announcement, which had no photo enclosed, went to a few dozen relatives and close friends. Had I announced my granddaughter’s arrival online, it would have gone to hundreds. Maybe more. It may have even been shared with total strangers. And there it would live online. Forever.
Today children have a digital footprint before they are even born. (Think of all those pregnancy announcements that include ultrasound images.) According to a 2020 study conducted by the Parent Zone, a UK nonprofit which studies digital family life, the average parent shares almost 1,500 images of their child before their fifth birthday. The term “sharenting” to describe this phenomenon is becoming part of the lexicon.
But what about grandparents? Because parents themselves run the gamut from posting their child’s every move to never sharing a photo online, figuring out how to approach “grand-sharenting” is tricky. “Knowing when to share and where to share photos on social media is a big issue,” says Nancy Sanchez who teaches a grandparenting class as part of a perinatal program at Stanford’s Children Health in California. “Some parents have real privacy concerns, while some don’t mind at all.” The bottom line, says Sanchez, is “grandparents need to defer to the parents.”
So what’s the problem with posting photos of kids on Facebook, Instagram or other social media? The two biggest concerns are identity theft and child pornography.
Stealing a kid’s identity is shockingly easy. Research by the Bank of Barclay’s revealed that parents’ oversharing would likely result in up to 7.4 million cases of identity fraud by 2030, costing the future generation more than $900 million. It’s all too easy for fraudsters to put together names, birthdays and even addresses from online family posts and then use this information to steal an identity. It’s also useful for cracking passwords. Think of common security questions — birthplace, name of school, favorite sports team or pet — all information regularly revealed online.
Further, according to Leah Plunkett, the author of Sharenthood: Why We Should Think Before We Talk About Our Kids Online and a law professor who specializes in children and digital media, we now know that many pornographic images are pictures of real kids, taken offline and photoshopped. A 2019 study done by Australia’s Children’s Esafety Commission found that of 45 million images of children on pornographic sites, roughly half were taken directly off social media.
What’s a proud grandparent to do? Experts say that these concerns don’t mean that you should never share photos of grandkids online. But it does mean that you should think before you do so.
“My goal is never to shame or embarrass parents or grandparents and tell them what they should and shouldn’t do, but to empower them so they can make safe decisions,” says Stacey Steinberg, a law professor and author of Growing Up Shared: How Parents Can Share Smarter on Social Media — and What You Can Do to Keep Your Family Safe in a No-Privacy World.
One thing that's important to understand is that social media “privacy” settings are not entirely private. Heather, who preferred not to use her last name for fear of alienating her mother-in-law, repeatedly asked both sets of grandparents not to post photos of her children online without permission. Her own parents complied, but not her in-laws.
“My mother-in-law couldn’t seem to get the hint, no matter how much we asked her to stop public resharing of my kids that I posted to my private friends-only account,” Heather said. “I turned off the share option, but then she would just download the photo and repost. Now I hardly ever share pictures.” Even if you disable the ability to download a photo, it’s easy for someone to take a screen shot and then reuse the image as they want.
For Marisa LaScala, Good Housekeeping’s senior parenting and relationships editor, photo sharing isn't as fraught, but can still cause trouble. The issue came to a head while visiting her mom’s Delaware home in November. LaScala had decided to take her 6-year-old daughter’s Christmas-card photo while she was there.
“We all had a great time dressing her up and preparing her for the shoot, but when it was over, I had to stop my mother from immediately posting the photos on Facebook,” LaScala recalls. “I said, ‘Mom, don’t scoop me on this one; it’s not even Thanksgiving yet!’ Now when we’re together she always asks if she’s going to scoop me if she posts a picture, but she’s just ribbing me … mostly.”
Parke Anderson, the mother of two boys, is sympathetic to grandparents’ desire to share photos, but still advocates for her kids’ privacy. “I understand both points of view,” she says. “You are so proud of this beautiful little life, and you just want to share it with everyone you love, but now we’re aware that when it’s on the Internet, it’s forever, so it’s tricky.”
Anderson managed to negotiate compromises. She gave her own parents a digital frame, which they display in their house. She and her sister can send updated grandchild pictures directly to the frame so that her parents can enjoy them in the privacy of their home and share with visitors. For her mother-in-law, she produced a “brag book,” a physical 4" x 6" photo album.
“She has it in her purse,” Anderson explains, “so if she’s having a lady’s lunch or playing golf, she can take it out and show it to her friends.”
Rules differ in every household. Elizabeth Sovern is allowed to post photos of her grandchild on her Facebook account, because her daughter is comfortable with the privacy settings, but not allowed to show her granddaughter’s face on her Instagram, which is public. Sovern does like to post photos of the items she has knitted for the baby there, but doesn’t balk at her daughter’s guidelines.
“Frankly, one of the joys of grandparenting is not having to come up with the rules,” Sovern says. “Constantly making decisions is one of the exhaustions of parenthood. Doing what my daughter says is one of the easiest parts of grandparenting. Whatever it takes to get my arm around that delicious child once more!”
But the social media conversation can go both ways. Grandparents can also be upset with parents’ online behavior, says Steinberg, the author of Growing Up Shared. Ironically, this played out in her own family. She’d given birth to her own son just as Facebook was becoming popular. Her parents had come for the birth. But Steinberg’s father, who was in the hospital hallway, saw his grandson’s picture on Facebook before he’d even been told the baby had been born. He was not happy.
Let’s not sugarcoat this. This is rough territory. For some grandparents who have been asked not to share images — even those who respect and accept the privacy concerns — it can still be difficult.
“It’s very hard,” says Margie Schoffman Milstein, who has five grandchildren ranging in age from 15 months to 12 years old. “I’m very jealous when my friends put things about their grandchildren on Facebook. I send my closest friends pictures, but it doesn’t seem the same to me.”
Jerry Josefs’ two daughters have different rules. His older daughter allows him to post photos of his 8-year-old grandson and his 6-year-old granddaughter. But the other daughter doesn’t want any images of her two children online.
“I hate not being able to post,” Josefs says. “It hurts that I can’t post pictures of my younger daughter’s kids, but I have to respect her and my son-in-law's decision.”
Of course, as grandchildren get older, they too have a say in what images they want online. It’s also hard to predict what current posts will embarrass them in the future.
Parents and grandparents in America have broad free speech protections, so their online behavior is not tightly regulated. But those protections don’t always hold in other countries. In the Netherlands, one family’s disagreement landed in court. In 2020, a Dutch court ordered a woman to remove photos of her grandchildren off Facebook and Pinterest. She had ignored her daughter’s repeated requests to take down the images. The grandmother was threatened with fines for every day she ignored the order.
In its ruling, the court said, “With Facebook, it cannot be ruled out that placed photos may be distributed and may end up in the hands of third parties.”
Family disputes over social media posting in this country aren’t likely to land in court. Nonetheless, online protocols need to be discussed in a calm, non-judgmental way. Think of the topic the same way you do about changed safety standards for sleep positions and car seats. It’s not a criticism of past behavior, simply a greater understanding of potential dangers.
“Navigating ‘sharenting’ practices across generations can be volatile,” says Plunkett, the Sharenthood author. “For parents looking to guide grandparents to healthier ‘grand-sharenting’ habits, it’s best to start by assuming good intentions on the part of the grandparents.”
Plunkett suggests explaining privacy and safety concerns, and then offering specific guidance on what they can post. For instance, some parents don’t want to show their children’s faces, or use their full names or identify a geographic location. A broader conversation about the implications of social media sharing can also be helpful for the generation that did not grow up with the Internet.
“One helpful rule of thumb could be to ask your parents to think about how they talked about you when you were the age their grandkids are now,” Plunkett says. “Ask your parents what kinds of information they would have shared in a holiday letter or in a local newspaper. Odds are good this sharing would have been more circumspect than today’s social media sharing is. Try to get them to go back to those 1980s – 1990s family information sharing norms from the analog world in today’s digital one.”
Which brings me back to my paper birth announcements. It’s mind-blowing to think about how technology has exploded since then. For now, I’m trying to balance my own grandparental excitement and pride with the realization that there’s a great deal about sharing online that I don’t understand. Meanwhile I wish I could include a photo of my sweet granddaughter in this article. But I can’t. You’ll just have to take my word for it — she's precious.