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Don’t “Like” My Children

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of “Sharenting” on Social Media

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Photo: Jessica To’oto’o / Unsplash / Modified

Sharing life’s joys and documenting our lives online has become a social norm, but are we oversharing important details? This question becomes extremely urgent when it references parents and the posting of information about their children. “Sharenting” is the new word that has been coined to denote parents’ use of social media or blogs to share too many details about their children’s lives. More than half of mothers and one-third of fathers discuss parenting on their social media sites. Many children are posted on social media within the first day of their lives and about 92% of 2-year-olds have an online presence. Children, unlike a parent’s adult friends, have little ability to consent or object to their information being posted on social media. Even parents who want to control their children’s online presence face daunting challenges, since well-intentioned family and friends can independently share photos of someone else’s child.

Parents who discuss parenting on social media do so in order to feel less alone. Parents share photos of their children to keep their family and friends updated on their lives. Posting a photo is an easy way to share their children’s achievements and milestones with those who couldn’t be there. Another common use of social media is for seeking parenting advice. A study conducted by the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital found that almost 70% of parents “said they use social media to get advice from other more experienced parents and 62% said it helped them worry less.” Commonly posted topics include how to get children to sleep (28%), nutrition and eating (26%), discipline (19%), daycare/preschool (17%) and behavior problems (13%) (“Parents on social media,” 2015). Parents feel they can relate to and benefit from other users that have experience with the issues they are currently facing with their child.

While parents love sharing their children’s joyous moments, some are concerned their posts may create privacy and safety risks. While it seems innocuous, the choice to share information about one’s children online courts several sorts of risk. Some of these risks relate to future embarrassment, perhaps caused by parents posting embarrassing photos of their children being toilet trained, in the bath, covered in food while eating, or on video singing and dancing to a popular song. More worrisome, bullies could also find these posts and target these children through cyberbullying. These embarrassing posts could surface again when these children are adults and affect their chances in getting a job or affect their reputations if they are running for high power positions. Parents may be putting their children in danger by helping identity thieves gather important information of their children like their birth date, full name, where they go to school, and what activities they are involved in.

An even darker worry connected to sharenting includes the new activity of “digital kidnapping,” when an online stranger takes children’s photos from their real parent’s posts and shares them as the stranger’s own children. A case of digital kidnapping occurred in Dallas where a mother found a New York man had been posting photos on Facebook of her daughter claiming that she was his daughter. She was unable to remove the photos because they are someone else’s posts, so she reached out to Facebook. “They’re telling me to report the pictures specifically, which I can’t do because he blocked me,” she said. “The only way I can report anything is by reporting his whole profile.” Copying and posting the pictures that others publically share isn’t technically illegal, however, and when she reported the profile to Facebook their response was that the profile met community standards.

In the brave new social media world animated by daily sharing, how far should proud parents go in attempting to hide their children from the digital light of day?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the ethical values and interests in conflict in the debate over “sharenting?”
  2. Is there a way to share information about your children and avoid the risks associated with sharenting?
  3. If many parents share such information about their children, does this lessen the ethical concerns with any given parent sharing such information about their children?
  4. How can social media companies act ethically when it comes to protecting the privacy of minors on their platforms?

Further Information:

Lucia, Andrea, “Child Digitally Kidnapped by Man Posing as Father.” CBS Dallas/Fort Worth, July 8, 2015. Available at:

Beeston, Ariane, “The pros and cons of ‘sharenting’: what parents need to consider when posting about their kids online.” Essential Kids, October 27, 2016. Available at:

Howard, Jacqueline, “The dos and don’ts of posting about your kid online.” CNN, October 21, 2016. Available at:

“Parents on social media: Likes and dislikes of sharenting.” National Poll on Children’s Health. Available at:

“Safe sharenting: Pediatricians encouraging privacy awareness for parents who ‘sharent.’” National Poll on Childrens’ Health. Available at:

“‘Sharenting’ trends: Do parents share too much about their kids on social media?” CS Mott Children’s Hospital | Michigan Medicine, March 16, 2015. Available at:“sharenting”-trends-do-parents-share-too-much-about-their


Kaitlyn Pena & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
November 28, 2018

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How to Use Case Studies in Your Class

By Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.

[PDF] Case studies are a common way of introducing or reinforcing themes in a range of classes, including those on communication and media. They also are an engaging way to build skills of respectful disagreement over important issues. They can serve as follow-ups to other materials on ethical theory or they can be used on their own to bring up overlooked ethical implications. They can be used in a course entirely focused on the ethics of media or communication, or they can be used to add a partial focus on ethics to a range of communication, journalism, or media courses. For instance, one may lecture on the ethics of trust in the news media, and then use a case study on sports blogging and trust. Alternatively, one might lecture on the various types of sports blogging and use a case study as a focus for discussion over the ethical issues concerning sports blogging. Either way, case studies are great ways to evoke discussion over difficult ethical issues.

What are case studies? Case studies are typically narrative accounts that involve characters (or parties) and at least one decision to be made that will significantly affect multiple parties. Typically, there are competing interests on each side of this decision—reasons for taking that action, and reasons against doing that action. If a case study is about forcibly revealing anonymous sources to safeguard national security, the interests are clearly oppositional: journalistic integrity (promises of confidentiality to one’s sources) and the interests of preserving our nation’s security (perhaps in times of war). The actions or decisions that serve as the focus of case studies are typically of two kinds: either they have already been made or they are yet to be made. The former type of cases will get students discussing the action a specified agent did in the case study, whereas the latter type ends with an unfinished situation—the students must then decide what an agent’s next move will be. Both types of case studies can be hypothetical or based on real occurrences.

How might one use case studies in their class? Some teachers use case studies to do two things. First, students can be tasked with identifying the ethical interests at conflict in the decision made or to be made in the case study at hand. What is the decision that is ethically problematic here? What reasons or interests do you immediately see for both sides of this controversy? Cultivating sensitivity to the various sides to an ethical issue develops the sort of charity and sympathy many see as vital features to an ethical decision-maker. And often, our first reaction is not our most justified or defendable reaction after we think about our reasons for a bit. Second, students can be asked to develop a position on the decision made or to be made—what should the agent do (or what should they have done)? More importantly, why is that the right action to take? This part goes deeper than merely noting interests on both sides of this controversy, as students are asked to argue for why one interest or value takes priority over another interest or value. Sometimes, there are creative solutions that can be envisioned to address all the concerns in the case study.

The fundamental point to the use of case studies in teaching ethics is to provoke discussion, questioning, and argument. They are not primarily used to solve problems, convey settled principles, prove certain theories, and so forth. Many instructors use them in the following way. Students are put into small groups and asked to read the case study. Each group talks over the case, directed by instructor prompts or the “discussion” questions listed at the end of many case studies. Following this, the instructor brings the entire class together and discusses what each group thought about each starting question. Students might then be encouraged to engage in reason-based discussion and debate about the case decisions in question. Disagreement, when it leads to the comparison and analysis of justifying reasons and values, is a welcome sign in using case studies to teach ethics. The instructor may conclude discussion with a summary of the interests and positions debated by students, but rarely is there one right answer (and set of reasons) that gains reasoned acceptance by all. Learning the process of critical ethical thinking and reasoned disagreement is one of the main ends of using case studies.

Lecture Over Revenge Porn

Photo: Gabby Lanza

Dr. Scott R. Stroud is the founding director of the Media Ethics Initiative. Dr. Stroud has training as a philosopher and as a communication scholar, and he researches a range of topics at the intersection of media and ethics. He is an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of the books John Dewey and the Artful Life (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011) and Kant and the Promise of Rhetoric (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014), as well as the co-author of A Practical Guide to Ethics: Living and Leading with Integrity (Westview, 2007). He has written extensively on many topics in communication and media ethics, rhetoric, and philosophy. His CV and his scholarly articles can be found at his page. You can contact Dr. Stroud and the Media Ethics Initiative here.

Meet the Research Scholars: Rachel Weisenthal

weisenthal headshotRachel Weisenthal is a senior at the University of Texas at Austin majoring in communication studies with a focus on the entertainment industry. With the ultimate goal of working in the music business, Rachel took any and every class available to her regarding the role of mass media and brand development on interpersonal communication and American culture. She spent the fall of 2017 participating in the UT in Los Angeles program, working full time for credit and taking industry-specific classes at night. Having always been fascinated by the role ethics plays in media, both digital and traditional, Rachel is excited to explore these issues through her work with the Media Ethics Initiative.

Media Ethics Initiative Research Scholars earn credits and research experience by working with the Media Ethics Initiative to promote reflection on media ethics among students and faculty at the University of Texas at Austin. They gain valuable skills by assisting the organizing and promotion of Media Ethics Initiative events, as well as by researching and writing case studies in media ethics. Interested UT Austin students can sign up for a 1, 2, or 3 credit internship for the fall or spring semester. For more information on the Media Ethics Initiative Research Scholar program, visit here.


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