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By Priya Kumar / New America
March 25, 2015

One evening while perusing Facebook, Christine encountered a profile with a public cover image that depicted her two-year-old son sitting in a pile of leaves. The profile belonged to Christine’s babysitter, and Christine hadn’t seen the picture before. (The names of parents in this article are pseudonyms.)

Initially, Christine felt uncomfortable. She told her husband, and they wondered what to do. Should they send the babysitter a Facebook Friend request? Talk to her directly about the photo?

Ultimately, they did nothing. They figured the babysitter posted the picture because she loved their son, and having a babysitter who cared about their child was more important to them than trying to control his presence on social media. Plus, Christine didn’t want the babysitter to think they were spying on her.

This exchange — the negotiation between parents, the consideration of a child’s digital footprint, and the time and effort that went into making this decision — illustrates the emergence of a “third shift” of work that parents take on to manage the online identities of their children. The concept extends sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s seminal work on family life, which described the “second shift” of homemaking work that occurs in addition to paid labor (the “first shift,” if you will). This “third shift,” which encompasses the work that goes into presenting family life on social media and other online platforms, extends debates about divisions of labor into the digital era.

Over the past two years, University of Michigan School of Information PhD student Tawfiq Ammari and I interviewed more than 100 mothers and fathers from around the country about their social media use. Working with professors Sarita Schoenebeck and Cliff Lampe, experts in social computing, our team discovered that while both parents participate in the third shift, mothers typically take the lead. Tensions emerge when one parent posts a picture that the other parent prefers not to be shared, or when extended family does the same.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, we found that the task of managing family photos, a type of domestic labor that seeks to preserve memories of home life, typically falls to women. Our research suggests the same is true in this age of Facebook and Instagram, with mothers generally taking the initiative to negotiate sharing policies with partners, decide what pictures to share, and post them online. We call this work parental disclosure management.

Disclosure management is what you and I do when we think, “Do I really want to post this? Would I want my parent/boss/student/high school frenemy to see it?” For those who use social media often, these may be semi-conscious thoughts or reflexes. But layered beneath these questions lies a complex decision process where your brain weighs the benefits of posting with the potential drawbacks.

When parents go through this process, they’re often deciding to reveal information about themselves as well as their children, who might not be old enough to make or respond to that decision themselves. At its core, parenting requires making decisions on behalf of someone who doesn’t know how to do so herself. But throw the World Wide Web into the mix and you have information that spreads easily, is visible to a much broader audience, and is nearly impossible to control. If the Web resembles a megaphone, what do parents feel comfortable sharing with it?

We examined this question and learned that mothers and fathers share different types of pictures. Typically, mothers of young children post pictures that are cute, funny, depict a milestone, or show their children with family or friends. Many fathers, on the other hand, post pictures that showcase activities in which their children participate, especially athletics. Mothers of young children typically hesitate to post pictures that portray nudity or negativity (e.g., crying). Fathers are particularly wary of posting images of children, especially daughters, that could be interpreted as sexually suggestive.

And here, things get murky, because parents — however blindly or haphazardly — try to anticipate how others will respond to what they share. One father we interviewed avoided posting pictures of his daughter at gymnastics, where she wore tights. Another father said he wouldn’t share a picture of his ten-year-old daughter wearing too-short shorts or making a duck lip face. He nearly unfriended one of his Facebook friends after that friend made a sexually suggestive comment about a picture the father had posted of his daughter perched on one foot. Rather than take the picture down or cut off online contact with his friend, the father posted a sarcastic comment in response. He injected humor into the conversation while still signaling his disapproval of the friend’s inappropriate comment.

This father’s experience underscores the difficulty of trying to control the presentation of a child’s identity online. Parents can control their own actions, but not others’ actions or reactions. This lack of control online frustrates parents, just as it does in the classroom or on the playground, where they want to have say in what their child learns or how high she climbs on the jungle gym. According to the Pew Research Center, 57 percent of Facebook users with kids under age 18 strongly dislike when people share pictures of their children on Facebook without permission.

Rather than brood in silence about their frustrations, parents we spoke to used a variety of strategies to address them. Preventative approaches included e-mailing announcements to extended family about their preferences for sharing information about children online, using different social media sites than the ones they used for themselves to share information about children, or creating separate social media profiles for children. When problems did arise, parents typically decided to laugh them off, ignore them (like Christine did with the babysitter’s picture), or ask people directly to remove the images or information.

These are promising strategies. Yet this research reminds us that while the digital landscape offers new tools to share information, it presents parents and children with similar decision-making challenges as the analog world — difficulties that never have one-size-fits-all solutions. Parents tackle countless daily decisions that affect their children, and figuring out what to post on social media may feel trivial. But when parents decide what pictures of their children to share or how to describe their children’s mannerisms, they shape how the world views their children. Confidentiality becomes a real concern, especially when sharing information about taboo subjects, such as medical crises or mental health issues. These disclosures can help parents find social support, but they can also compromise the child’s privacy.

Parents may also disagree about how best to manage their children’s lives online. Divorce or separation can complicate efforts to negotiate sharing practices. One father’s ex-wife preferred not to share information about their child online, while he worried that he would never see pictures of their son except during in-person visits. Another father who was separated from his child’s mother could only see pictures through his father’s Facebook friendship with his ex-partner, since she unfriended him.

This third shift also poses challenges for children, who are destined to grow up and develop their own opinions and privacy preferences for social media engagement. Though it’s impossible to know what the social media terrain will look like in a generation, recent legislative actions seek to account for these children’s rights. One such California law known as the “eraser bill” requires websites to allow children under 18 to delete content they post. The movement to pass such measures indicates a growing public appetite to give minors greater autonomy and control over their digital footprints.

In addition to individual negotiations and government interventions, social platforms themselves can help families navigate third shift challenges. For example, the ability to create shared accounts on social media sites could help parents jointly control privacy settings or manage information. Parents could also use “silent tagging” which would store information in a profile that a child could eventually review and decide whether to share more widely online. Social media companies that are looking to the future would do well to integrate robust identity management features that help people respond to their already existing online life.

Today’s parents had the chance to shape their own digital footprints, while their children will inherit the digital footprints their parents create for them. As our social and economic lives increasingly intersect with digital technology, we must continue to study the scope and stakes of “third shift” labor for both parents and children.

Priya Kumar is a program associate with the Ranking Digital Rights project. This piece was originally published in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox each Thursday here, and follow @New America on Twitter.

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