Let’s shine on a spotlight on some kids and teens who are subject to an especially intense form of parental intrusion into their private lives—the stars of the relatively new commercial sharenting sector.1 Commercial sharenting is sharenting that is undertaken for financial gain. This gain could be immediate compensation, development of business interests for future compensation, or other forms of current or potential revenue generation. Revenue may come from a variety of sources, including marketing agreements with businesses to promote a given product or service and other partnerships or deals, such as the YouTube Partner Program.2
Lawyerly caveat: commercial sharenting refers to actions taken by parents or other primary caregivers, not by teachers or other trusted adults. Teachers and other adults can and sometimes do engage in commercial sharenting or activities similar to it3 but far less frequently than parents themselves do.
Through YouTube channels, blogs, Instagram accounts, and other digital platforms, commercial sharents use their families’ everyday experiences to create revenue-generating content that is available to the public. This form of entertainment may be thought of as reality TV 2.0. It doesn’t require a Hollywood studio or even a television, although successful commercial sharents typically have some corporate connections, structures, or platforms. Parents can make their own videos, pictures, written stories, and other depictions to capture everything from that first poop in the potty to prom night. They can join the growing ranks of “microcelebrities” who live in “a state of being famous to a niche group of people, but it is also a behavior: the presentation of oneself as a celebrity regardless of who is paying attention.”4
Within the commercial sharenting sector, there is tremendous variation of practices and outcomes. Some sharents make millions through endorsements and other deals.5 Many more are engaged in what scholars call “hope labor”—free work done with the hope of future compensated opportunities.6 This sector also has a supporting cast of third parties available to help with marketing, branding, and other digital strategies. Kids and teens typically have top billing, however, whether they like it or not.
As you consider commercial sharenting, check in on your privacy paradigm. For instance, do you still think of privacy as being transactional—that secrets can be traded for services or goods? Whatever perspective you have on privacy, try strength-testing it by seeing if your reaction to commercial sharenting is in line with what your paradigm would predict. Do you see risks to youth privacy, opportunity, and sense of self in commercial sharenting? Why or why not? Are your answers here similar to or distinct from your risk assessment of noncommercial sharenting? When points of tension emerge between your answers to these questions and where your paradigm points, you might use them to guide reflection. Can you articulate an understanding of privacy that would comprehensively and consistently explain your answers to the questions in these chapters?
The same query applies to your understanding of childhood and adolescence. After looking at regular sharenting and now looking at commercial sharenting, what is emerging as your conception of childhood and adolescence? What do you think of the vision the book is advancing—that these life stages should promote playing, making and learning from mistakes, and developing a sense of self? If this resonates with you, why does it? If it strikes an odd note, what would hit the right one? If you find yourself thinking that privacy intrusions and related risks are justified in the context of successful commercial sharenting, there are implications for your conception of youth as well as your conception of privacy. Perhaps you would define childhood and adolescence in pragmatic terms, as life stages to prepare kids and teens to provide for themselves in adulthood. In this conception, commercial sharenting is cause for celebration, not concern.
This chapter begins by having some fun, lawyer-style. It challenges the basic premise that commercial sharenting is best understood as a new phenomenon of our digital world. Satisfied that it is (or at least accepting that it could be, for the sake of continued argument), the chapter goes on to describe several main narrative categories of commercial sharenting. During and after this description, the chapter surfaces some key legal, ethical, and practical risks and opportunities that can arise when the family business is turning personal business into everyone else’s business.
This discussion also shines new light on regular sharenting. In the commercial space, money takes center stage. In the noncommercial space, it lurks offstage, seemingly invisible. This chapter’s spotlight on commercial sharenting can help us start to see how financial considerations shape all adults’ choices about children’s digital lives. It also helps us to see how these financial considerations interact with our understanding of what it means to be a parent, especially a mother. Further, it raises some uncomfortable questions: Are we coming to accept an element of cyberbullying as part of today’s parenting? Are we encouraging children to be actors instead of their authentic selves as we create the digital stories, both commercial and noncommercial, of their lives?
Before we go further, let’s play a lawyer’s favorite game. This is how it works. Someone says something, and you say, “You’re wrong.” Then that someone says something else, and you don’t even listen. It doesn’t matter what he or she says. You just say, “You’re wrong.” It’s fun, and it can last forever—especially if you do it with your uncle at Thanksgiving dinner or the stranger sitting next to you on a red-eye flight.
We’ll make the game short and sweet in the hope that it actually will have some value. The statement: commercial sharenting is a distinctly twenty-first-century enterprise that is designed to monetize children’s private experiences in unprecedented ways through new and emerging digital technologies. The response: you’re wrong! Commercial sharenting simply brings together two familiar parental practices—commiserating and running a family business.
Parents have always shared stories about their kids. Parents talk to other parents. They talk to professionals, like teachers and doctors. They talk to the cashier at the grocery store to commiserate when their kid has just pulled all the candy off a shelf. Parents need to connect with peers, get advice, and maintain perspective. So all that commercial sharenters are doing, it could be argued, is using newly available modes of connection to build a wider circle of support.
To the extent that some of them make money, isn’t that a good thing? Family businesses have long been a vital part of the United States economy. Look no further than Little House on the Prairie: Laura and Mary had responsibilities for keeping the family homestead up and running.7 Successful sharenters are just doing a modern version of what Pa and Ma did—asking kids to make contributions to the family livelihood in limited and appropriate ways.
This argument is not frivolous, as a lawyer might say, but it’s not convincing. Commercial sharenting isn’t just another form of communication or family business. It’s different in type and scope. This type of sharenting trades on personal experiences, not tasks like milking cows, and it can instantly broadcast these experiences to the world. In the recent past, more widely accepted privacy norms sheltered these experiences from public scrutiny. Think back to 1990. You would have found it bizarre if a parent had paid for a billboard by the highway that said, “My daughter just got her first period!” How is it different to make a YouTube video about that same experience?8
Essentially, it’s the same. Both YouTube and the billboard broadcast a personal coming-of-age moment. The key differentiators underscore how far removed commercial sharenting is from more established forms of interpersonal communication or family business. YouTube is free to use; the billboard has a fee. YouTube has global reach; the billboard has a local audience.
To be fair, YouTube does invite interaction and education beyond what a billboard or other brick-and-mortar options would offer. But those opportunities to develop community and learn about content, while generally positive, do not mitigate the privacy violations taking place. We have zoomed right past the potential billboard phase of sharing our children’s private stories, which would have been less privacy-invading, and are speeding down the information superhighway route of doing so.
Commercial sharenting is a new phenomenon. When commercial sharenting hits a small screen near you, you can see first periods, family pranks, more extreme content that YouTube’s algorithms suggest you watch next,9 babies playing with kittens, and teens playing with tigers.10 The broad picture presented here of the major categories of narratives in commercial sharenting today might be seen as a fuzzy series of screenshots taken from a phone while walking. This description is not a panoramic picture of the entire commercial sharenting space at present, an analysis of its evolution over time, or a taxonomy of all the variables that shape its content.11 Instead, these screenshots aim for just enough clarity on commercial sharenting narratives to keep the conversation going without losing days of our lives conducting research.12
There are three main types of narrative categories: life stages, activities, and cause-based communities.13 The lines between them are “cellphone pics while walking” blurry. A particular instance of commercial sharenting may encompass more than one narrative framework.
Within each type of narrative, there are subgenres. For example, family prank videos may be understood as a specific type of activity. Suggestions of how to craft with kids are yet another activity subset, although there appears to be room for a crossover prank and craft toddler star who replaces coffee with dirt and calls it art.14
Across narrative types, sharents usually look to strike a balance between a “just between us” authenticity and the polish of performance.15 This approach holds true for all parent narrators, although they fall at different places along its spectrum. Indeed, this mode is the heart of commercial sharenting’s appeal—crafted moments in a family setting. This could be your family, the narrator effectively says, yet we’re way cooler than you. Winky face emoji.
The main narrator’s persona often will impact the nuances of this balance, as well as throw other variables into the mix. The new mom discussing postpartum weight gain is likely to use the cadence of a best friend meeting you for a cup of coffee. In this narrative, intimacy is most important. Staging is subtle, designed to hide rather than highlight that the presenter is on the other side of a screen, not the other side of a café table. The single dad playing a trick on his adolescent daughter16 will take the opposite approach. The set-up is visible. The tone invites the viewer to join in the joke but is more about delivery of the punchline than dialogue. Fortunately, digital technology does not yet allow whipped cream pies to be hurled across cyberspace and emerge from your computer.
The first narrative type of commercial sharenting script is life stages. This is largely the province of so-called mommy bloggers who create web logs called blogs. This term is used expansively to include vloggers (people who video log their content), Instagrammers, and creators of other types of digital content who are presenting in their role as mothers. Some women who create such digital content find the term disrespectful.17 Others embrace it and make it their own.18 Here, it is intended to be understood descriptively, not pejoratively.
A life stage encompasses both the chronological age and developmental phase of the children in the family. The experiences and emotions of a parent (typically a mother) are made visible primarily as they relate to whichever life stages her children inhabit.19 Commonly chronicled life stages include20 conception, gestation, labor and delivery, newborn, infancy, early childhood, childhood, preteen, and teen.
Within these stages, bloggers discuss topics familiar to most parents. A conversation about conception, for instance, may include the logistics of trying to become pregnant or the heartache of infertility. Often, these conversations include details about cervical mucus and other bodily functions that previously would have been known only to an intimate partner, medical provider, or a trusted circle of friends and relatives.21 An entry about early childhood may focus on a toddler’s transition to becoming a big sibling when the new baby comes home.22
Many of these topics could have been on the table back in the 1950s when mothers met for a neighborhood coffee klatsch. But many have a distinctly twenty-first-century flavor, such as which baby monitors offer parents the most peace of mind or which fertility tracking devices will help them produce tiny humans who need said monitoring.23
Whether dishing about the traditional or the digital, commercial sharenting about life stages frequently contains a generous side helping of advice for other parents. This advice may come dressed in medical or scientific glaze, be served up as personal experience, or lie somewhere in between. Either way, the narrator typically lacks formal qualifications in the field in which she blogs, such as reproductive medicine.24 This new capacity for nonexperts to give parenting advice to millions of people is a dramatic disruption of two more established channels for such information—a personal network (which includes relatives, friends, and community members) and credentialed experts using traditional platforms (such as print publishing). The actual and potential impact of this shift in both personal and public lives is vast and complex.25 Much of it is beyond the scope of this discussion.
But let’s chew on a few morsels of food for thought. A self-reinforcing cycle seems to be emerging in which successful commercial sharents are incentivized to share more and more about their children and their families. When a parent has become recognized as a parenting expert based on her identity and actions as a parent, she enhances her status by showing more and more of her parenting. To an extent, whether a given parenting choice succeeds or fails is irrelevant. If it fails, she can present that failure as a helpful data point: “do NOT try this at home!”
Parents outside the commercial sharenting circle appear to consume this content at least in part because it is understood as a source of expertise. The more they consume and engage with the content, regardless of whether they are convinced by it, the more it is shared across digital platforms, bolstered by the additional dollars from advertisers and the heightened display by algorithms. The more it is shared, the more it is believed by parents and other viewers. This entrenched believability likely boosts the commercial sharenters’ credibility, deepening their reach and encouraging still more sharing.
In this cycle, there are few or no points at which informational accuracy is the primary focus of content creation. It may not be a meaningful variable at any point. There are no final exams in parenting. There is no peer review of tips offered online on how to make your child sleep better. No license from any governing board is required to share your own experience of infertility, with some purportedly medical data in the mix. If you claim that you have an MD when MD actually stands for “Mama’s Dishin’,” you’re violating multiple laws and regulations, including those against the unlicensed practice of medicine and truth-in-advertising requirements.26 But there are likely no legal violations if you share your own experiences and reflections on relevant medical, scientific, or similar sources without misrepresenting your credentials, telling lies, or engaging in similar nefarious conduct.
The Federal Trade Commission has begun to take more of an interest in the digital commercial activities of social media “influencers,” a category that may include some commercial sharents. Its focus, however, is on the need for transparency in marketing endorsements when an influencer is being compensated to promote a product or service.27 Whether or not there may be anything unfair or deceptive in the content or impact on consumers of a commercial sharent’s allegedly “expert” advice itself appears to be on the periphery of the regulator’s radar.
This may be in part baked into the typical commercial sharent narrative’s focus on recounting personal experience that viewers or readers can then generalize from and apply to themselves if they so choose. This narrative amounts to “Here is my experience. I hope it will work for you, too!” This type of claim is different than one that promises a potential purchaser a certain outcome. For example, if a mattress company promises that all babies will sleep 100 percent better if you use its mattress and that claim is false, then the company’s actions are likely unlawful.28 If a mommy blogger says that her sleep advice worked for her own child and that she hopes it will work for yours, that doesn’t appear to be unfair or deceptive. (But if she recommends the 100 percent better mattress because that company is paying her to do so and she doesn’t disclose the financial arrangement, then she would be violating truth-in-advertising requirements.)
The life stages sector of commercialized sharenting seems to be trending, at least in part, toward becoming a space for transmitting expert information that is largely from noncredentialed and unregulated parenting experts.29 Given the wide reach that recommendations from sharents have, inaccurate, incomplete, or even misleading information about parenting topics can spread like a virus and may contribute to the spread of actual, dangerous viruses.30
The second narrative type of commercial sharenting script is activities. The topics in this category run from arts and crafts to zany pranks, typically with a focus on doing activities with kids or guiding kids as they engage in such activities themselves. Some activities land on the quotidian. For example, the founders of WhatsUpMoms YouTube channel identify the search for travel tips for families as a key impetus to start creating content.31 Still other familiar activities include holidays,32 sports,33 and household decor.34
Sometimes these pursuits move beyond quotidian concerns into inspiration. Do more than get through the holidays: accessorize your home into transcendence!
Other activity categories are less common across households. Many moments in family life unintentionally create humor, as when you put laundry detergent in a dishwasher. Oops. But the laughs that bubble over from mistakes or spontaneous play are distinct from those that arise from elaborate plots to “put one over” on a family member. When that family member is a child, the prank may be no laughing matter.
The dark side of the family prank space requires zooming in beyond the screenshot level. This side reveals how commercial sharenting can result in the total exposure of children at their most vulnerable. At its most extreme, such sharenting reveals to the world parental conduct that meets the legal definition of child abuse or neglect.
Recently, a court determined that a Washington, DC, area couple had neglected two of their children after a series of videos posted on the father’s YouTube channel, DaddyOFive, showed what to “most onlookers . . . looked a lot like abuse.”35 In an especially disturbing sequence, the parents spill disappearing ink in their son’s bedroom, swear and scream at him about how much trouble he’s in for the mess, then mock his justified indignation when he is told, “It’s just a prank, bruh!”36 This basic script repeats itself in a number of episodes: they put a child in an inappropriate or unsafe situation, capture his understandable emotional reaction, reveal that it’s “just a prank,” then document and ridicule his inevitable meltdown.
The court ordered two children removed from this family’s home and placed in foster care. The parents themselves had already suspended their YouTube channel, which had roughly three-quarters of a million followers. Viewers alerted authorities about the dangerous household.37 This development could suggest that the family’s YouTube postings, although a privacy intrusion for their children, were justified because they allowed outside eyes to witness the inner workings of this house of horrors. It could also suggest that the incentives to generate new and sensational content to capture viewers’ eyeballs contributed to this vicious and dangerous conduct in the first place.
Regardless of where you come down on these complex questions of causality and consequences, two general points about privacy and pranking are straightforward. First, after a prank is loose in the digital world, it is pretty much impossible to scrub it from the internet. The DaddyOFive YouTube channel is gone. Its content is the digital equivalent of real ink, however, rather than the disappearing kind. Its stain remains. The internet hosts perpetual reruns, whether the “actors” like it or not. The DaddyOFive content is readily available through other online sources, such as the YouTube channels of the viewers who have commented on it.
Even when that commentary is a respectful and thoughtful analysis of the “many ways to abuse your kids” and the reasons they’re all unacceptable, as one leading YouTube commentator put it, that commentator is still facilitating viewers’ access to the videos.38 Cody, the boy who was the butt of most of his parents’ so-called jokes, appears to have lived through a nightmare in the DaddyOFive household. In some ways, he will continue to live through one as long as that footage has an undead perpetual existence on the internet.
For Cody, decision makers about his current and future opportunities will not need a data broker to dig for or an algorithm to analyze intimate information about his childhood. His humiliation, fear, anger, and so much more are there in plain view. You would have to be heartless to hold any of his experiences against him.
But how about reasoning that goes something like this: “Of course, it wasn’t Cody’s fault, but given what we know about the potential for childhood trauma to have lifelong adverse impacts on survivors, maybe I don’t want to let my child have him over for a play date. Maybe I don’t want him in my class. Maybe I don’t want to give him a summer job.” Such questions are rational. They are also unfair to Cody. Depending on the role of the decision maker, they could shade over quickly into unlawful discrimination against him based on an assumption of disability.39 Perhaps more important, from a child’s perspective, they likely will make it hard for him to make friends and be himself, whoever that self turns out to be.
The second general point about privacy and pranking is that many kids today are subject to parental pranks. But there is a difference between so-called pranks that actually constitute abuse or neglect, like Cody experienced, and pranks that do not. A prank that is in poor taste or just not funny typically will be lawful. Today’s digital sharenting culture, however, does have an uncomfortable subplot of parental pranking to it even among commercial and noncommercial sharenters who avoid crossing the line into abusive or neglectful behavior.
Kids are natural comedic geniuses. Toddlers find it hilarious to repeat the old “throw the spoon on the floor, shriek for dad to pick it up, repeat” routine. Parents are also funny: they can make the spoon start to talk, flirt with the fork, and elope with the dish. Mazel tov! Maybe the family is the only one laughing, but it’s a spoonful of sugar to help real life go down.
The sweetness starts to sour, though, when we get laughs at our kids’ expense rather than laughing with them or at ourselves. Take the annual trick or treat prank that late-night television host Jimmy Kimmel sets up every year. Parents pretend they have finished all of their children’s Halloween candy, film their children’s response, and share the recordings digitally.40 The YouTube video of the 2017 “I told my kids I ate all their Halloween candy” challenge put out by the Jimmy Kimmel show has more than 2.8 million views.41 Kimmel gets contributions from sharenters everywhere. Spoiler alert: taking candy from a baby may be easy for the adults, but there’s nothing easy about it for the babies. These kids take it hard. Some of them have epic flipouts, and others struggle to remain calm while falling apart inside. The trick cuts deep, upending the immediate promise of Halloween mirth and the fundamental one of parental reliability.42 It generates a cheap and even sadistic laugh.
That so many parents play along raises a disturbing question about the adult appetite for humor: how much of it is based on behavior that should be understood as bullying?43 It’s a loaded word, but cyberbullying might be the right term to describe the dynamics underlying certain instances of commercial and noncommercial sharenting.
In the last decade or so, there has been a growing focus by educators, lawmakers, and other decision makers on how to address bullying behaviors between youth, as well as to protect kids and teens from the harms that result.44 In many ways, the digital world has exacerbated these challenges and risks as children and adolescents engage each other around the clock across a range of devices and platforms.45 A common response by decision makers has been to pass new or update existing state statutes and regulations to require educator and law enforcement intervention when bullying occurs.
Let’s look at one such antibullying state law, which defines bullying as “a single significant incident or a pattern of incidents involving a written, verbal, or electronic communication, or a physical act or gesture, or any combination thereof, directed at another pupil which . . . causes emotional distress to a pupil.”46 The law specifies that bullying covers “actions motivated by an imbalance of power based on a pupil’s actual or perceived personal characteristics.”47 This law is binding only in the school context, hence the use of the term pupil. It is a law about how kids treat other kids.
Thought experiment: what happens if you swap in the word minor for pupil? The law then would prohibit a single significant incident that causes emotional distress to a person under age eighteen, including when that incident was motivated by an imbalance of power based on that person’s age. Publishing your children’s suffering—by taking Halloween candy from them, recording their reactions, and sharing the results with the world—seems to fit that adjusted definition. It is a significant incident that causes emotional distress to your child, however that distress is measured. An imbalance of power is inherent in the set-up of the incident. The parental role affords the adult “prankster” access to the candy. The child role puts the child in a place of dependence on the parent. What recourse does she have to get her candy back if her parent says it’s gone? The child role also virtually guarantees that the incident will garner a response that the parent sees as worthy of filming because, from a developmental perspective, the child is likely to have a strong and complex reaction to the “prank.”
Is it time to call in the parenting police? No, an antibullying law that covers parents and other adults won’t be written.48 Such a law likely would be unconstitutionally vague and overbroad. Especially as applied against parents, it could prohibit positive parenting conduct that keeps your child safe, like making your thirteen-year-old cry when you tell him he can’t drive your car because he’s underage. If the government proscribed even one “significant incident” of parental conduct that causes “emotional distress” to a child based on the respective parent and child roles, then the government would be intruding too far into constitutional protection for the liberty to parent and raise a family.49
The rights to other adult-child relationships, like teacher-student or coach-athlete, are not entitled to the same level of constitutional protection as parent-child. However, these other roles do carry with them certain legal responsibilities that require adults to make decisions, based on the child’s age, that are necessary to keep them safe but may still cause the child emotional distress. Thus, an antibullying law that covers nonparent adult caregivers also likely would be too vague and overly broad to survive a legal challenge.
Although law enforcement won’t be opening a file for the case of the missing Halloween candy, we adults can and should still be thinking about the norms we adhere to in our daily lives.50 We don’t need a law to tell us that bullying our kids is wrong. We do need to think about how we explain the following to our kids: it is fine for us to take their candy, make them cry, film their crying, and share the video, but if they do the same thing to a younger pupil, they will get in trouble at school and perhaps with local law enforcement.
Is the right explanation similar to the one we give about drinking beer and driving cars? That explanation goes a little something like this: “You can’t do it now, but you can do it when you’re older.” Can we come up with a sound explanation here, one grounded in common decency and upholding the spirit of the antibullying laws our elected officials have passed for the schools that teach our children? If we can’t, then we should rethink the Halloween prank, both participating in it and watching it. More fundamentally, we should rethink our current acceptance of sharented “prankster” content by amateurs or professionals that makes kids the butt of jokes. There’s a lot more that is ghoulish than grown-up about it.
The third narrative type of commercial sharenting script is cause-based communities. Let’s see what happens when the better angels of our nature prevail. Many commercial sharents are trying to lift up their own and other people’s children and families. A snapshot of this major narrative type reflects an ethos of bonding and triumphing over adversity or rallying around shared affirmative goals that go beyond beating hardship.
As with the other two categories, there are many variations on this broad theme. One common subcategory responds to adversity, such as children or families living with serious or terminal physical illness51 or living with disabilities of all types.52 Their content may include blogs that aim to destigmatize experiences of chronic health conditions by sharing both the “normal” aspects of daily life as well as the burdens of illness.
Another subcategory is situated between an adversity-based perspective and an affirmative goal-based perspective. The content here comes from kids or families that might be nontraditional or unconventional in some regard within their community, state, or country. They tend to be subject to unique pressures and difficulties in their lives, which are grounded in interactions with other individuals and institutions rather than in a physical or mental health condition. Commercial sharenting here includes LGBTQ families and interracial families.53 The child’s or family’s experience is offered as motivation for those watching and reading, as well as for the content creators themselves. At its core, this is the familiar buddy system: if you’re trying to reach a goal, find a buddy. Or find a million.
Sometimes, the real goal is to find a million dollars (or close to it) to pay for a sick or disabled child’s medical treatment and other needs.54 The requests for money for this purpose or a similar one may make this category of commercial sharenting more explicitly financial than other categories are. At first glance, this focus on the monetary in the caused-based community space might seem counterintuitive or somehow inappropriate. Why try to “make it rain” (in the sense of introducing explicit monetary goals) on a parade where everyone is marching toward an uplifting, nonmaterial goal? What about letting in the sunshine of shared goals, without a price tag? Isn’t this commercial sharenting at its most exploitative—cashing in on other people’s pity for your child?
These are fair questions, but they ignore the category five hurricane for the drizzle. Making it rain money is an attempt to get to a sunny day. The real storm comes from the excruciating financial and related pressures that face many families whose child is seriously ill or has a disability. Often, even with health insurance, families face insurmountable costs and agonizing choices. Do they use their resources to pay their mortgage or buy a service animal for their child that insurance and other sources won’t cover? These types of tradeoffs strike at the core of parents’ duties to their children to provide for their well-being in the present and future. The law sets a floor for these responsibilities.55 Parents tend to aim for the stars, as well they should.
Thus, the financial request is commercial only in a technical sense: it uses the digital marketplace to generate income. At its core, it’s likely to be about survival. If comprehensive and accessible resources were available for families with sick or disabled kids, then families would have less need to share their children’s private medical information with the world to educate others and motivate them to contribute financially to the care and success of their children and others in similar situations. The price of privacy is too high when health and life are on the line.
Will this amount to a “borrow now, pay a lot more later” situation? Our consumer credit realm is replete with such offerings, although money rather than privacy and opportunity is at stake. A familiar example is the payday loan, where the borrower gets a short-term loan that must be repaid, with interest and fees, on the borrower’s next payday. The borrower writes a check for the lender to cash on this upcoming payday or gives electronic bank account access to withdraw the funds.
This lending product offers borrowers who lack good credit, savings, or other resources a way to bridge a financial gap and satisfy time-sensitive obligations like rent or car payments. Unfortunately, it also tends to trap them in a cycle of additional borrowing when they predictably can’t afford the three-figure annual percentage rate (APR) plus amount borrowed they must shell out on their next payday.56 So pernicious is the payday loan that Congress has banned it for members of the armed forces.57 And Google has blocked payday lenders from advertising the product through its search engine.58
Defenders of payday loans say they are providing a necessary survival mechanism for borrowers who lack other options. Critics say that the solution creates bigger problems by exacerbating financial instability and increasing the likelihood of total financial ruin. The legal system’s response to weighing these and other considerations varies significantly by state, although the potential for a more uniform federal regulatory solution remains. The bottom line, especially with internet-based payday lending that transcends state boundaries, is that would-be payday loan borrowers need to decide for themselves how high a price is too high. The same is true for would-be borrowers of other high-cost, relatively short-term loan offerings, like auto title loans, payment-optional adjustable-rate mortgages, or medical loans.
And the same is true for parents of kids with serious illness or disabilities. There are far fewer legal and regulatory oversight mechanisms in place for commercial sharenting than there are for consumer lending. There is also much less information about the sharenting space available than there is about the consumer lending industry. Because the children whose private medical information is shared in this way are still young, the cost-benefit analysis is difficult to do. Will a child whose struggle with cancer is on public display be bullied, be denied access to educational or other opportunities, or face other negative consequences down the road? Even if she does, are those downstream impacts still preferable to losing her home because her parents choose to pay for her treatment rather than their other bills?
One potential point of comparison is with children whose health struggles have been shared through a nonprofit organization as part of a campaign to obtain services for them or other children in a similar situation.59 These campaigns seem to enhance children’s lives overall rather than detract from them. Such a comparison may be limited by the layers of decision-making and governance structures that legitimate nonprofits have that families lack.
But is a board meeting at which trustees direct an institution to carry out such a campaign better than a kitchen table session where two parents, who know their own child better than anyone else knows her, start a blog or GoFundMe campaign? On the one hand, the professionalism of a board and staff might result in a better analysis of costs and benefits than the understandable emotionality of parents. On the other hand, if your child needs life-saving medical treatment immediately, the deliberative pace and the multigoal nature of an organization likely would be an obstacle to your financial goal. Here, arguably more than anywhere else, commercial sharenting is all about caring and caregiving.
Zooming out from the three narrative types, let’s consider the familial caregiving role itself. In many two-parent heterosexual families, mothers fill this role more often than fathers do.60 Single-parent households are disproportionately headed by a female parent, making mothers the only caregiving parent.61 And in a household with two mothers, by definition, a female parent is playing this role. Across the board, then, more women than men inhabit the family caregiver role.
Commercial sharenting trades on domestic doings. Even narrative types that focus on topics other than caregiving are likely to originate from or at least involve primary caregivers, who are closer to children’s and families’ experiences than are nonprimary caregivers. Because primary caregivers are often women, the roles and responsibilities of mothers in commercial sharenting are complex.
Right off the bat: major props are due to any parents who combine career with caretaking, and special props to women who insert themselves into the traditional ways that companies reach customers. These women are adding another layer of gatekeeping. Why trust company jargon when you can hear a real person talk about how a product or service worked for her, even if she is being paid? Extra special props go to the people who have found ways to use this addition to the commercial sphere to create space for additional authenticity—or at least for new topics of discussion. Would we see such a booming market in menstrual product services, fertility trackers, and other women’s health products if female commercial sharents weren’t out there talking about these topics?
But one of these new areas of discussion is children. In addition to an ethical analysis of how maternal sharents influence female empowerment, feminism, and consumer culture, the unavoidable reality is that being a commercial sharent involves your child. Maybe you are thinking about having a child, trying to have a child, expecting a child, parenting a child, or coping with the loss of a child. You are in one or more of these categories. Otherwise, you are not a parent in any sense of the term.
By definition, then, doing commercial sharenting successfully means that you are sharing your private life to some extent.62 It also means sharing your children’s private lives. It’s a family business, but the product is not hardware sold in the family store: it’s your self—your experiences, thoughts, emotions, and struggles. Being a primary caregiver doesn’t rob you of the ethical right to sell your own self in this way. But it also doesn’t give you an open license to do so for your children, simply by virtue of their dependence on you and your investment in them. The line between mama and baby may be hard to draw, especially for infants and children. We need to be mindful of drawing it for them, even when every minute of our waking hours, and many of our resting ones, are consumed by their care. Motherhood is a life-changing role. Can we talk about that transformation and its elations and frustrations without overexposing our children’s fledgling selves?63
It’s time for another fun lawyer game: the objection! This question about motherhood and the overexposure of children cannot be answered because it rests on a faulty foundation—that commercial sharenting portrays children’s real selves. If kids are playing parts rather than being themselves in commercial sharenting productions, is there still a privacy problem?
This objection is sustained, as a judge would say. This ruling allows an objection to redirect the course of a courtroom or, in this case, a written conversation.
To respond to the objection: it is difficult to determine how much commercial sharenting content is sparkle and how much is substance. In a sector where the transparency and relatability of the presenters are part of the construct, it may be impossible.64 Maybe all the worldwide web is but a stage, and all the kids merely players. Maybe just part of the webpage is a stage, and all the kids more than players. It seems most reasonable that commercial sharenting productions fall on a spectrum ranging from fantasy to fact and that there is some performative element involved in most of them.
Accepting the premise that there is at least a dash of fiction in most content, does this mitigate or even eradicate the privacy problem? It is tempting to say yes. After all, the audience doesn’t tend to watch the lucky child who scored the lead in the school play and think, “He’s such a good Peter Pan that he must have huge issues with his parents and wants to avoid adulthood.” The audience recognizes that the kid in the green tights is playing a part in a narrative written by an adult. If there are mommy and maturity conflicts, they are those of the playwright. The performer can connect with the audience through a shared emotional experience even as he keeps his personal feelings to himself.
However, this protective coating of fiction fails to translate from the auditorium to the app. There are several significant distinctions between these two settings that erode the privacy-protecting functions that acting out a fictionalized role might provide. First, there is a difference in audience. Viewers of the school play are limited in number. Also, they presumably are part of the same brick-and-mortar community as the performer. Viewers of a blog post of a big brother meeting his baby sibling for the first time may number in the millions and lack the community connections.65
Second, there is a difference in authorship. A playwright makes visible her creative contribution and ownership. A commercial sharent typically seeks to downplay her role in shaping her child’s actions. She may function as a reporter, documenting what her child does, or as an analyst of the child’s actions or her own reactions. Her responses often include those of caregiving, but even though these actions are centered on her child, they are still portrayed as separate from the child’s. The narrative trope is that the child is the creator of his own contributions rather than the parent.
Third, there is a difference in accessibility. A character in a play is written to belong to all actors who step into that character’s shoes, although the belonging ends when the curtain falls and is always bounded by the author’s rights. By contrast, a character in a commercial sharenting production is meant to represent one person and one person alone. That one person just so happens to have the same name in real life that he has on the digital stage.
And that one person is sometimes too young to understand that he is being asked to play pretend, no matter how much a commercial sharent may try to design a fictional alter ego for him. The newborn whose trip down the birth canal is recorded offers the most obvious example of a participant with no ability to appreciate the subtle difference between being yourself and playing the role of yourself. But even kids and teens who weren’t born yesterday may have trouble understanding this distinction. Such a challenge is both a function of their developmental stage, as well as the genre of commercial sharenting itself.
The commercial sharent wants her audience to experience the portrayal of her child as authentic, so the domestic scene is set accordingly. Presumably, she recognizes that savvy blog consumers will not experience every detail of the blog as genuine. Every parent knows that baking with kids is 90 percent mess and 10 percent success on a good day. It’s definitely not 100 percent #blessed. But she is trading on some sense of identification, even as it mixes with voyeurism over the stainless steel appliances and spotless faces.
Trying to explain to a child that he is at once himself yet not himself as he sits in his own kitchen with his own family is an existential challenge worthy of a Shakespearean soliloquy. The explanation grows even more difficult if and when the child becomes aware that viewers, advertisers, and other stakeholders are responding to his performance in the form of likes, comments, and capital. Because there’s an incentive to play to your audience, the “art imitates life” origins of the sharenting production are likely to evolve to where “life imitates art.” The part played in commercial sharenting seems likely to move toward the heart of who the child is.
Being true to thine own self is a challenge across life stages and performance stages.66 It is a challenge even in the quotidian performative arena of digital life. Even parents who aren’t seeking to monetize their digital lives may stage them for viewers’ consumption. You don’t need to care about making dough you stash in the bank to want baking pics that show dough becoming cookies rather than going up the dog’s nose. It seems likely that the noncommercial space would be subject to less staging than the commercial. In this space, parents lack access to the same supporting cast and crew of make-up artists, marketing consultants, and others. They also lack the same entrepreneurial goals. Thus, they are likely to prioritize other goals, like forging interpersonal connections or old-fashioned venting, which would seem to bring with it more of a premium on authenticity. But even the noncommercial space isn’t #nofilter all the time.
The same fundamental question arises in the noncommercial space: how can there be a privacy problem if the lives on display are not fully real?67 Can you have any sort of privacy interest in a depiction that is part fiction rather than all fact? The short answer is that there is a privacy problem when the portrayal draws significant material from real life, is held forth as real life, and in some fashion loops back in to inform real life.
The longer answer is that the same factors around audience, authorship, and accessibility are salient in the lay sharent realm, just as they are in the commercial sharenting space. The impact and emphasis of each differ when we’re talking about millions of viewers and a paycheck as opposed to mom’s friends from college and “playbor” (activities that blend play and profit motives).68 But there is a financial dimension even in the noncommercial realm: parents, teachers, and other trusted adults receive free or lower-cost digital services by “paying” for them with children’s data. The rise of the child digital day laborer, both in commercial and noncommercial spaces, is examined further in the following chapter.
Here’s the basic equation for both commercial and noncommercial sharenting. Parents are inviting in a wide and uncontainable audience whose members may lack any actual connection to the family or children.69 Parents are holding out their child’s actions as authentic, eliding their own role as creator. And parents are giving their child a part that bears his name, that lives in his house, and that is understood by the child to be him. At some point, he will likely become aware of the viewing public’s reaction to this portrayal. Regardless of any explicit financial stakes in the commercial realm, there is likely to be a “life imitates art imitates life” cycle that develops in which the child’s choices, experience of the world, and felt sense of self are filtered through the sharenting lens.
What do you think that children’s and adolescents’ sense of self should be worth? Would you farm your kids out to a warehouse to work for free so you could get all the DVDs you want? Clearly not. So why are you comfortable sharing their toilet-training dilemmas online to generate revenue for your sharenting enterprise or in exchange for ostensibly free access to all the social media services you could want? And why does our legal system let you make these choices? The next chapter looks at the dominant myths that our legal system holds about children, parents, families, and other adults that make adults’ stealth digital attack on childhood and adolescence possible.