“My Son’s First Smile!” Is Instagramming Your Baby As Harmless As You Think?

Modern Family

“My Son’s First Smile!” Is Instagramming Your Baby As Harmless As You Think?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam


Among the few furniture I am attached to, is an ancestral almirah, once my dadi’s. Every once-in-a-while, I am drawn to it; especially the contents still living in its many chor khuns (secret compartments). Stashed in one of these hidden sections is a fluorescent green tub of Jai Kaajal, one my dadi used to dot us with kaala teekas, “the ultimate protection from evil eye”. 

It was another lifetime when you had a compass-like situation, kaajal dots in the East, West, North, South of children’s faces. During my teen years, I played a staunch rationalist against this practice. Now, reading 11 ominous news articles on sharenting in the last two months has sent me running for this coin-sized kaajal box and going nostalgic about those days.

Sharing (mostly oversharing) the joys and challenges of parenthood and documenting every bit of your children’s lives online is now a social norm. Parents at it are called sharenters, and the act, sharenting. This one is not a straight out portmanteau of sharing and parents. Online legend is, on May 18, 2012, the Wall Street Journal writer Erin McKean coined the term “oversharenting” in a “Words of the Week” article pointing out the superfluity with which parents were sharing information and photos of their kids online. 

Scientists in high places are successively publishing studies on the price of sharenting. University of Michigan CS Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health found some alarming data. Three-quarters of parents polled pointed to “oversharenting by another parent, including parents who shared embarrassing stories, gave information that could identify a child’s location, or posted photos perceived as inappropriate”. Researchers at the University of Rochester have shown how new technology can easily mine data from digital platforms. They were able to monitor drinking habits of teenagers, even predict their drinking patterns from Instagram posts.

A New York Times report warns that “by 2030, sharenting will play a role in two-thirds of identity fraud cases facing the young generation. Parents also risk unwittingly exposing their children to data broker profiling, hacking, facial recognition tracking, pedophilia and other threats to privacy and security.”

How did we get here? How – in a couple of generations – did we go from fretting over the dangers of “nazar lagna” at a family gala, to shelling out a gazillion pictures and details of our children on social media networks? 

Thanks to sharenting, I know how much my social media friends and influencers love their children.

I decided to do my clairsentient thing, and here’s what I saw. The kaajal ki dibbi was sucked into an anti-matter reactor. It emerged as a super high-tech blob of black, skipped blemish-free baby skin, and did a “Voldermort on Professor Quirrel”, becoming the all-seeing and documenting eye on the back of our phones.  

Now, I am not a sharenter – on the metric scale of coolness for millennial parents, my husband and I are the uncoolest duo the stork ever made a delivery to. In fact, even after a year and some months, many of our friends are still finding out about the delivery. While I’d like to imagine that I am the Harry to this Voldermort-Quirrel jodi, my lack of desire to sharent is simply an extension of my long-running social media persona. No stranger needs to know things about me; I do not want them to (this includes the Aadhaar folks, wanting my bank account details). I’ve never wished my family members online; I talk to them directly. I have zero skills for the gush and mush, or tolerance for it. I also take very bad selfies. In effect, that’s zero skills for creating personal shareable online content.

But, I see how sharenting can be liberating. It’s a door to a parallel universe where things work like you want them to. You can imagine, create, and curate this phase in your life that has you going crazy in reality. As this wonderful comment piece in the New Yorker points out, “There certainly may be an element of proud boasting: ‘Oh, this? It’s just my daughter’s tastefully mismatched outfit,’ ‘Admire my toddler son’s taste in jazz,’ etc. But these carefully chosen glimpses of adorable bliss often do little more than mark a tranquil reprieve during an otherwise arduous day. The isolation of parenthood delivers one to strange places, especially in the early going, and you need your tribe.” 

Sharenting is also helping a few of the many who can’t have conventional jobs anymore,make careers as mommy (or daddy) influencers. The lure of baby mascots is real even for acclaimed professionals. On Instagram, home-bred romance novelist Durjoy Dutta has his two-year-old to thank for a few thousands of views every day. An Indian-origin British Muslim model and fashion influencer, Amena Khan has been able to up her game with video blogs and Insta stories regularly featuring her two children. Gourmet chef Shilarna (Chinu) Vaze, a favourite to cater to soirees of Aamir Khan and Alia Bhatt, created great content for a brand selling premium packaged dry fruit. A natural progression since becoming a mommy, most of her posts – both personal and collaborations – revolve around motherhood and her daughter. 

Thanks to sharenting, I know how much my social media friends and influencers love their children. What they feed their babies. And in effect, what foods they like or dislike. When and what were their first words, and other developmental milestones. What subject and what sport their children are good at, even their friends. Where they hang out. What’s their poison. 

Sharenting is a door to a parallel universe where things work like you want them to.

But I am too lazy to do anything with this information. Also of sane mind. No vendetta against anybody. A law-abiding member of society. Not a hacker, a scientist, a future law-enforcement profiler, or a digital media marketer. My target variable pay is not dependant on getting you to buy something or to vote for someone. I am no network scientist from Indiana University, who could be interested to profile the popularity quotient of your kids. But they did a swell job forecasting top models at the 2015 New York Fashion Week from Instagram data. 

The information all of you post is as good as trash to me, even though it’s a “treasure trove” for the neuroscience folks funded by German Research Foundation. Digital footprint on social media holds for them clues to insights into users’ curiosity and personality traits, their emotional state and social conformity, even brain structure. 

Social media teetotallers or hibernators, do not feel left out. A study by scientists at the University of Vermont shows that privacy on social media is like second-hand smoke. They say: “Identity and actions can be predicted from friends – undermining idea of individual choice on social media.” It seems “a company, government or other actor can accurately profile a person – think political party, favourite products, religious commitments – from their friends, even if they’ve never been on social media or delete their account.”

In this scheme of things, my clairsentient guess is, I am guinea pig number IMA19860906SDD, and my daughter, IMA2018****AAW for a study far North.