The Sunday Story: When Parents Overshare Online : Up First "It's this version of me that my mom's publicized and made very permanent."

Lou grew up as a social media baby. Their mom had a public blog where she shared details about her life as a mother. But she also shared details about her kids, including Lou. Now, Lou remembers the blog as a fixture of their childhood, but not in a good way. Throughout their teen years and into adulthood, strange adults would reach out to Lou online, asking personal and often inappropriate questions. Classmates would use content from the blog to embarrass them.

Lou is part of a generation of social media babies now grappling as young adults with a digital version of themselves created by their parents and shared with the world. Today on The Sunday Story, a look at family blogging, a trend that's become so popular there's now a name for it: "sharenting." But a growing number of young people are starting to object, saying such blogs take a toll on their mental health and violate their privacy.

The Sunday Story: Permission to share

The Sunday Story: Permission to share

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Lou, whose mother wrote about their family in an online forum when Lou was growing up, poses for a portrait Thursday at Rocky Mountain Lake Park in Denver. Rachel Woolf for NPR hide caption

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Rachel Woolf for NPR

Lou, whose mother wrote about their family in an online forum when Lou was growing up, poses for a portrait Thursday at Rocky Mountain Lake Park in Denver.

Rachel Woolf for NPR

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, call or text the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988.

For Heather Armstrong, blogging was never just a way to explore what it means to enter motherhood. It was a way to cope with the exhaustion of sleepless nights, endless diaper changes and the seemingly nonstop cries of a newborn. In the thick of the joy and confusion of being a new mom, she turned to her keyboard to cope with the challenges.

"It helped me process the fact that it was extraordinarily difficult," she said in an interview last fall. "I had no idea what I was doing. I didn't have friends who had babies. My mom was not in town."

In 2001, Armstrong launched the site Dooce.com. What started as an online diary of sorts quickly grew into one of the most popular "mommy blogs" on the internet. These blogs allowed parents to connect, build community and commiserate about parenting, and for Armstrong, this meant finding her people — the ones who could relate to what she was going through.

"It was about my kids. It was about depression. It was about finding commonalities with women who did not understand what it was like to lose our village when we had children."

It wasn't long before Armstrong's blog gained millions of views, and with that popularity came the opportunity to profit off the content. It started with product placements with her kids, then book deals. She was hailed by Forbes as one of the most influential women in media and even appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Yet, despite this success, Armstrong admitted it wasn't always easy being an influencer. Armstrong died by suicide in May after a lengthy battle with depression and addiction — struggles she was open about with her legions of followers.

"The scrutiny from being very public online is extraordinarily difficult to deal with," she said last fall. "At times, it's excruciating."

By putting her family on the internet, Armstrong had not only exposed herself to this attention, but also her children, who were featured in her content. Her daughter Leta Elise Armstrong, now 19 years old, says these blog posts affected her, too.

Leta remembers reading her mom's posts sometimes and realizing that things were often embellished for readers. "I was a little frustrated because, like, I have all this content being put of me online and sometimes it's not even accurate," she says. "It's just embarrassing."

And this has led to some anxiety. As she's applying to jobs and internships, Leta's also thinking about how this digital footprint will follow her. "​​I think it's scary to think that, like, I can be judged off of that."

"Social media babies" are entering adulthood

Leta's concerns echo what has been a growing outcry in recent years as an entire generation of "social media babies" enter adulthood and are forced to confront a digital version of themselves created by their parents and shared with the world. What began as a way for moms to feel less isolated has now exploded in scale, bringing new concerns about what it means to grow up in the digital age. Now old enough to speak out, kids whose photos, videos and stories were once used for posts on social media are raising concerns about all of this sharing and what it means for their privacy and mental health.

Lou's childhood stories were shared online for all to read. Rachel Woolf for NPR hide caption

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Rachel Woolf for NPR

Lou's childhood stories were shared online for all to read.

Rachel Woolf for NPR

Family influencers have changed the landscape of what was once the mommy blog movement, and with more and more brands looking to capitalize off users with massive followings, they have more opportunities than ever to monetize content via sponsored posts and ads. For some of these users, a post can earn anywhere from $50 to $5,000. For mega-influencers with followers in the millions, the potential for earnings can reach as high as tens of thousands of dollars per post.

While the potential for profit is clear, what's less understood is how all this sharing affects children as they grow up.

Most of the research into the emotional impact that content creation has on children is still in its nascent phase. A 2017 article in the journal JAMA Pediatrics warned about just some of the potential negative ramifications, such as "identity theft, resharing pirated information on predator sites, sharing psychosocial information that should remain private, and sharing revealing or embarrassing information that may be misused by others." The European Paediatric Association reiterated these concerns in a paper published last month, stating that the existence of such content "can cause emotional damage due to shame or embarrassment" as children age.

Take Lou, who for privacy reasons asked to be identified only by their first name. When they were a kid, they were used to strangers reaching out to them on the internet. That's because their mom wrote about her children in an online forum, where she would share information about her life — including posts on motherhood and, consequently, her children.

Adults armed with in-depth knowledge about Lou's family and the events going on in their life would message Lou online. Sometimes they offered kind words and emotional support. Other times they sent messages that crossed the line into flirtation. This kind of interaction might sound scary for a child, but it was all too normal for Lou, whose life had been shared online for as long as they could remember.

Like Heather Armstrong, Lou's mom took to the internet to find community. But while this may have brought catharsis for their mom, Lou was often left troubled by the stories shared online for all to read.

"There was just this twilight zone kind of feeling. It was crazy-making. I felt nuts all the time," says Lou.

Peers and teachers at school knew when their parents had been fighting, and, in some cases, had access to intimate or embarrassing details about Lou's home life. To Lou, these stories told from their mom's perspective were often exaggerated or misconstrued for their mother's audience. But the online version of Lou didn't just live on the internet — it became a part of Lou's identity in real life, one they couldn't escape.

"It's not even a fictional character that I'm dealing with and unpacking. It's this version of me that my mom's publicized and made very permanent. It's feeling like a bird in a cage with the mirror," Lou describes.

When we reached out to Lou's mom, Jody, for a response, she said that until two years ago, she had no idea Lou had any issue with what she shared about them. Jody's last name is also being withheld from this story for privacy reasons.

Jody said she doesn't consider her blog to be a "mommy blog." She says that while she did post about her kids, the blog was mostly about her own thoughts and experiences. She says that when her kids were young, she edited or deleted any posts that the kids took issue with and that Lou never told her they were being approached by strangers because of the things she posted. If they had, she says, she would not have ignored that.

Children and youth want more consent

Lou's experience is hardly unique. Research on what's come to be known as "sharenting" has revealed that parents and children regularly disagree about how much to post online. For example, a study published in 2017 asked 331 parent-child pairs about sharing information online and found disagreement among kids and their parents about consent and sharing. The kids wanted their parents to ask for permission to post content more often than they do. Similarly, a 2020 study from researchers in Sweden found that children and youth, regardless of how old they were, wanted their parents to ask permission before taking pictures of them and sharing them online.

Lou came to realize they could not keep people from seeking out old blog posts. "It's this version of me that my mom's publicized and made very permanent," Lou says. Rachel Woolf for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Rachel Woolf for NPR

Lou came to realize they could not keep people from seeking out old blog posts. "It's this version of me that my mom's publicized and made very permanent," Lou says.

Rachel Woolf for NPR

John Oates, a developmental psychologist and member of the British Psychological Society's Ethics Committee, recommends that influencer parents who want to feature their children on their platform responsibly should take the same approach that a more professional media organization would when working with minors.

"The top principle is respect for autonomy, dignity and privacy," Oates said.

There may be some parents who are well-intentioned but unaware of the risks associated with social media exposure — not just the psychological toll, but other harms, such as the risk of content falling into the wrong hands. For example, a 2015 investigation by the Australian government looked at tens of millions of images on child pornography sites and found that about half of images came from social media.

New research is also starting to suggest that parents can cross the line into something much more harmful when they share too often. One study from researchers in Turkey found that most people thought excessive online sharing could be considered child abuse or neglect. Like other addictions, the researchers argue, an internet addiction could take parents' attention away from the needs of their child.

Lawmakers are starting to pay attention

That's where laws come in. One bill recently introduced in Washington state would make it easier for children to get photos or videos that their parents posted of them deleted once they reach adulthood.

The bill aims to reset the rules of the road for parents who profit off of photos and videos of their children through branded content. It would do so by providing children with the rights to their likeness or their image, so that they get paid for participating in content creation similar to how children in Hollywood have been compensated for decades.

"The reality is our kids don't always get a choice ... in how they're included in an online presentation," says state Rep. Kristine Reeves, who sponsored the bill.

"The fight we got into in our committee was 'child labor laws should already cover this.' But the reality is child labor laws were written for physical workplaces, physical manufacturing, etc.," Reeves says. "Child labor laws never conceived of online brand profiles and content creation."

A similar bill recently passed the Illinois legislature in May and is expected to be signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker. That bill, however, doesn't give children the right to remove content of themselves.

The majority of states are still playing catch-up. So for now, former child social media stars are left to cope with the digital footprint that has been left behind and in some cases are choosing to delete what they can.

For Lou, this meant making some posts of their own to begin to reclaim control over their own online narrative, but they soon came to the realization they could not escape from people seeking out the old blog posts.

"Then it felt very similar to the 'Oh, these people, they're watching me for entertainment and they're not here for me. They're here to consume what I've gone through as something to pass the day.'"

Lou ultimately made the decision to remove most of their videos. For now, they are focused on creating a safe space, offline, where they can build the community they want, on their own terms.

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This podcast episode was produced by Andrew Mambo and Emily Silver and edited by Jenny Schmidt. Digital support from Justine Yan. Our engineer was Josh Newell.

This episode was originally reported by Hanisha Harjani and produced and edited at the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

We'd love to hear from you. Send us an email at TheSundayStory@npr.org.

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