In ‘Sharenthood,’ local author explores a parental peril unique to the digital age

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    UNH Law Prof. Leah Plunkett, author of "Sharenthood" —Courtesy

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    UNH Law Prof. Leah Plunkett, author of "Sharenthood" —Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 9/21/2019 9:22:56 PM

If you ask professor Leah Plunkett, it’s a good thing Tom Sawyer isn’t around today because he would really hate it.

“I think we are fundamentally eroding the nature of childhood by exposing our kids to this near-constant surveillance, whether it’s Alexa or Fitbit or facial recognition or education technology. … The sum total effect is we are removing the archetype of Tom Sawyer, the ability to make mistakes and grow up better for having made them,” is how Plunkett puts it.

Plunkett, a professor at UNH Law School in Concord and mother of two small children, isn’t really concerned about Mark Twain’s famous creation. But she is concerned about real children, as well as their parents.

She has put these concerns forward in a new book titled Sharenthood, which is a mash-up of the words “parenthood” and the ubiquitous “sharing” that marks social media. That term, which has been around for a little while, focuses on parents putting an endless series of photos and stories and anecdotes about their kids online, which can backfire as children grow up and realize that they are defined by a huge amount of digital material that they may not want to be public.

This is a problem, Plunkett agrees, but her book makes clear it’s only a part of the problem.

“The term ‘sharenting’ – I think it’s being used too often in too limited a way,” she said in a recent interview. “It’s just the tip of the iceberg, what parents do on social media. And that kind of discussion may hide the global problem we have. Having the A.I. assistant, smart home, tracking or surveillance device actively or passively picking up family data, including kids data. … And that data is out there, with data brokers and other commercial providers trading it, largely unregulated. There is a gold rush for data in the private sector, but we have very little ability to get transparency about how it’s being collected and being used.”

Plunkett says the book grew out of an intersection of professional and personal issues, “as many projects do.”

As a lawyer and academic she had long been interested in law and policy around student data privacy. Then she and husband, Mike Lewis, had two children.

“I began to have more questions about what parents and other trusted adults were doing. . . . What do we think about the complete erosion of boundaries between the digital world and the real world, and how to navigate it,” she said.

Plunkett, 40, says she grew up a little before social media changed the world. She didn’t get her own email address until college and her first cell phone even later. But she has embraced today’s technology, both as a professional and as a parent.

“We are often doing what you see as sharenting. We think of it as a normal habit, part of the routine we all engage in,” she said.

Yet she says she and many people she knows have begun thinking twice about what, or even whether, to put items online, as well as how to deal with children’s online habits.

Sharenthood includes tips about the topic, ranging from checklists to deep discussions.

“I encourage parents, individually or with a partner, to reflect on the values that they want in their home. … Where is privacy in your list, protected space for play in your list, what is the best way to develop a child’s sense of autonomy and agency?” she said. “These are big questions.”

Parents also need to be aware that they’re establishing correct online behavior. Over-sharing of your child’s material may encourage them to over-share their own material when they get older, which can lead to problems like identity theft or bullying.

“Children learn what they live. If they see us taking pictures of them constantly and putting them online, or they’re aware there’s always a camera pointing at them, they may not ask questions of their friends, or a government actor, doing the same thing,” she said. “We want kids who are going to ask questions down the road.”

“One of the things I increasingly hear is that it’s hard for parents to start conversations with family members and other parents about this. I hear, ‘my spouse and I talk about this and know limits’ … but we’re really not comfortable with what an aunt or an uncle is doing, and we don’t know how to bring it up,” she said. “There are a lot of child-welfare conversations we’re used to having at this point – allergies, guns, movies – but we haven’t figured out how to have digital privacy and digital citizenship conversations.”

“People need to learn to ask: Hey, is it okay if I post this? I’d love to see those kinds of conversations be part of our regular interactions as parents.”

Plunkett does not, by the way, favor hard-line crackdowns on personal behavior by parents or government.

For example, she says, “I’m not in favor of (digital) curfew” in which phones can’t be used after a certain time of night, she said. Such hard and fast rules tend to backfire, both in the home and society: “I’d like to avoid getting to a point where you get well-meaning lawmakers and regulators swooping in and trying to micromanage the home.”

The more important role for society and laws and regulation, she says, is to control what’s happening with all the data that is being gathered by all the devices around us every day.

“I worry more about what is going to happen when my preschooler is applying for college, a job, insurance or some other vitally important opportunity, and there’s some sort of behind-the-scenes, not transparent, data-driven decision being made about whether they’re a good candidate,” Plunkett said. “And there’s no legal structure in place to give them comprehensive access to the info.”

“That’s what I’m worried about – what private companies out there, and government actors as well, … are using seemingly discreet, private, not very obvious data points in unexpected ways that are creepy but legal,” she said. “That’s something we all need to take a serious look at.”

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)
David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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