This post originally appeared on London School of Economics’ “Parenting for a Digital Future” blog. The authors expanded it from their article published in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing’s special issue on marketing and public policy in a technology-integrated society.
Motherhood brings a variety of changes to a woman. Most women experience physiological changes as they transition from non-pregnant to pregnant. All women experience psychological changes as they consider new expectations and have concerns about what it will mean to be a mother. Consequently, they may experience vulnerability. Many of today’s mothers grew up sharing their own lives on social media. Reaching out to similar others when they have these concerns and questions is natural to them. Now, as mothers themselves, they are posting photos, videos, and other personal information about their children. This behavior has given rise to the term “sharenting,” or regularly using social media to share information about one’s child. While this behavior may seem like “the new normal,” mothers may not fully comprehend the impact and potential consequences of posting personally identifiable information about their children. We advise marketers to stop any practices that encourage parents to divulge their children’s personally identifiable information.
My Friend, the Company
Further complicating the matter is mothers seeking to engage with companies as “friends” on social media. Increasingly brands encourage this perception by showing that they understand what it’s like to be a mom, sounding like a close friend. They develop that relationship in a “friendly” way through social media marketing tactics such contests/sweepstakes or virtual chats. They may simply ask moms to “share” photos and videos of their children.
They may also be triggering sharenting.
The very personal information that the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) is trying to prevent marketers from gathering directly from children without the parent’s consent, parents are willingly offering to brands as they share or post requested content. Companies are able to gather personally identifiable information about children directly from their parents.
Mothers’ Vulnerability and Information Sharing
Our research seeks to understand mothers’ vulnerability and how it may translate into sharenting, which increases their children’s vulnerability. In our interviews with both non-first-time and first-time mothers in the United States, all women expressed excitement and anxiety at the idea of becoming and being a mother. These emotions are heightened for first-time mothers as each phase of their child’s development was uncharted territory for them. Mothers’ behavior was motivated by the desire to be, and be seen as, a “good mother.” This desire was coupled with the anxiety as to how to do so. Moms shared that they often post about their child(ren) on social media as a strategy to help them cope with the transition into motherhood. In the process, however, some share their child(ren)’s personally identifiable information such as name, birth date, photographs/videos and/or other personal details about their children’s lives. What’s more, mothers commented that they can never be sure of exactly what happens to that information once it is shared on social media.
Brands are tapping into mothers’ tendency to post about their children. Our research assessed one such example from Carter’s, Inc., a baby and children’s apparel company. It conducted a Twitter chat as a sweepstakes. In order to participate, the mothers had to make their Twitter profiles public. Carter’s asked 10 questions during the hour-long event. Mothers responded using a specified hashtag in the hope of winning a gift card from the company.
We assessed more than 1,000 tweets from over 100 moms. We found that the majority of mothers expressed some form of vulnerability (e.g., feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or ill-prepared; experiencing parenting stress) in response to at least one question. Additionally, nearly half of the mothers posted some form of their child’s personally identifiable information in response to at least one question, most commonly with a photo that contained the child’s face. Anyone could have accessed this information given the company’s requirement of a public account for participation.
This seemingly harmless and fun way of moms connecting with a brand who understood them, and possibly winning a desirable prize, resulted in children’s personally identifiable information being publicly available, putting the child’s privacy, and potentially safety, at risk.
Solutions in a World of Brand-Prompted Sharenting
The limited research on sharenting has focused primarily on legal analysis related to privacy and subsequent advice to pediatricians. Although a public health solution would be valuable, there may be a contributing role for a marketplace solution. Marketers’ social media tactics, which mothers respond to with expressions of vulnerability and the sharing of children’s personally identifiable information, may circumvent the very legal protection (COPPA) that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has in place to protect children’s online privacy.
Our observations of the Twitter chat suggest that mothers are unlikely to click on, scroll through, and read the terms and conditions for participation, which do not acknowledge children’s privacy or safety considerations. They may have perceived their interactions with a children’s brand to be more like that of a friend than a social media employee, making them feel comfortable with sharing more than they normally would.
Marketers’ engagement in Twitter chats about children shows a lack of thoughtful consideration for children’s privacy and safety. It is unclear whether marketers solicit children’s personally identifiable information as a calculated effort to bypass COPPA or simply due to a lack of awareness of the potential consequences.
Regardless of motive, we advocate that the FTC provide guidance and education to parents, social networks, and nonprofit and commercial organizations about marketing data collection practices from parents about children, which is not currently covered in COPPA.
All of these factors can play a key role in helping mothers understand the safety implications of their social media behaviors by highlighting the privacy issues related to posting children’s personally identifiable information on social media, instead of encouraging them to do so. Although marketers have been part of the problem, they can work with policy makers to become part of the solution.
Read the Article
Fox, Alexa K. and Mariea Grubbs Hoy (2019), “Smart Devices, Smart Decisions? Implications of Parents’ Sharenting for Children’s Online Privacy: An Investigation of Mothers,” Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 38 (4), 414–32.