Leona O'Neill

Leona O'Neill has been a journalist in Northern Ireland for over 20 years working with, among others, the Belfast Telegraph, Sunday Life, Daily Mirror and the Irish News. She is also a news reporter on Q Radio, a weekly columnist with the Irish News and a commentator for the BBC. She is a mother of four children - two of them teenagers - and as such is also a full-time professional worrier.

An online acquaintance of mine is toilet training her little boy and is documenting the entire, at times smelly and unpleasant business, on her social media platforms and on a blog.

I got an email notification last week and logged on to read about how she had left him alone sans nappy to make a phone call and came back to the living room to discover he had mounted some manner of dirty protest in her absence.

She explained in detail about where he had smeared the unpleasantness in what was, undoubtedly a humorous tale. But still it made me cringe. At two years old the little lad had no control over what his Mum was posting online.

The fact of the matter is is that Mum has put out a story about her little boy that will be around forever in the digital ether.

Let me paint a picture for you. This young man will grow up, fall in love and when his future life partner Googles his name, the story of how he, at the tender age of two-years-old, smeared his living room in excrement will be there as a gauge of his suitability as a husband.

Or another picture. He’s in the running for a big promotion at work, a management role. The head of Human Resources Googles his name to ensure that he is a suitable candidate to represent the company and the story of how he took the head staggers as a toddler and painting his Mum’s living room in poo comes up. The head of HR might well be concerned that he is a loose cannon not to be trusted at the Christmas party, never mind with the reins of the business.

Perhaps these are slight exaggerations, but as I told my Mummy blogger acquaintance, what we post online about our children will be around forever, so we need to be extremely careful about the picture we are painting of them without their permission.

The growth of sharenting

Sharenting has been all the rage since social media burst onto the scene.

Our generation is the first to be able to put our kid’s lives out there in the digital world for all to see.

Children are born onto social media. Within seconds of them arriving into the world their crumpled, chubby faces and odd-shaped newly born heads are plastered all over Facebook, the likes running into their hundreds and thousands.

Children’s life moments are captured and posted – first words, first steps, their successes, their mistakes, everything is laid bare for all to see. These moments – their digital footprints from birth to now – are online forever, so that their future husband or wife can read the post about the time they wet the bed when they were nine.

Stories about their potty training journey, their little hilarious quirks and how they have driven Mammy to drink are common place on Facebook. It’s been pretty hard to gauge what our children think of it all.

Everyone has that friend who is trigger happy with the camera phone, taking photo after photo on a night out and tagging you on Facebook to photos you don’t want to ever set eyes on, never mind be published for everyone from your Granny to your boss to see. If you think snaps of your bleary-eyed self belting out Kylie Minogue numbers in the pub is embarrassing, think on how your kids feel when you’re posting pictures of them doing kids stuff on your social media platforms.

Research carried out in recent years asking kids what they thought of their parents sharing photos of them on social media discovered that they felt nervous, anxious or worried over this. They spoke of fears over bullying and also of receiving nasty comments under pictures.

The problem with sharenting is that we are taking our child’s private moments and sharing them with potentially thousands of people, some of whom we have never even met in the flesh. We are making the decisions to make information public on their behalf. What seems funny now, may lead them to earning a nickname in primary school, or being bullied 10 years from now.

A good rule of thumb is to only post photos of your kids that you would want posted of yourself. Would you want to be captured with Spaghetti Bolognese all over your face and the bowl on your head? Or in the bath with a suds beard?

Before they can make their own decisions on such matters, we are responsible for our children’s digital footprint. We should all think before we sharent. Our kids will thank us for it in years to come.