Why we’re parenting under the social media limelight

Milly Chebby Mwangi, an influencer mum, whose one year and six months old daughter Milla has her own Instagram account.

Photo credit: Pool | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • How much is too much in the world of sharing your children’s photos online?
  • The line’s blurry, but what’s certain for influencer mums is that they are making the right decisions for their children.

If it takes a village to raise a child, then social media only makes the village bigger. Milly Chebby Mwangi, an influencer mum, understood this well when she shared a video of her child bathing in a basin shortly after major surgery, on her Instagram stories.

That her daughter’s scar was healing was a feat she wished to share with her Instagram followers, who had shown her massive support during the trying time. In the same way, they were quick to protect the child’s privacy after the video went live.

“People urged me not to post the baby’s naked image online, saying, it was not a good thing to do,” she tells the DN2 Parenting. 

While she would eventually take the video down after the criticism, the incident begged the question: to what extent should children’s private lives be shared online? 

From the first steps when a child is learning to walk to when it can throw tantrums, documenting and sharing the child’s life as it grows instils a feeling of solidarity in the parent. They no longer feel lonely, but instead, celebrates the child’s milestones as a community.

It is not different from the age-old practice where parents give out their children’s photo album to guests when they visit for a cup of tea. But, are there limits to this practice of sharing that should never be crossed to protect the child’s social and emotional wellbeing?

A tightrope influencers like Milly often find themselves walking on a tightrope trying to strike a balance between promoting their personal brands and protecting their children’s welfare. While some prefer to keep their children’s faces private, others choose to create a digital photo album.

Milly Chebby Mwangi, an influencer mum, whose one year and six months old daughter Milla has her own Instagram account.

Photo credit: Pool | Nation Media Group

This allows their audiences to connect with their child’s likeness, while at the same time, carving a digital footprint for the child to look back to during their formative years. It also creates income in the form of brand endorsements for either the parent or the child by leveraging their social influence to promote a brand they have found suitable for their children. The income generated may be directed to their education or insurance.

It isn’t all that bad. Until it is. 

The term “sharenting” was not created in a vacuum. It is a pejorative formed by combining the words “share” and “parenting.” It is often used to point fingers at parents who share too much information about their children online.

The intention is usually harmless, but the implications of sharing photos of children on the internet have been widely discussed in academic circles.

Besides cyberbullying, the prevalence of sexual exploitation from cybercriminals implies that parents need to be more vigilant about their online activity and the privacy of their children. 

Considering their influencer careers, Milly and her equally influential husband, Terrence Creative, agreed to start a separate Instagram account for their child. 

“Milla then became a popular baby and people started following her because she’s our child,” she said. 

With Milla having endured a liver cyst during the first two months of her life, the couple chose to wait until she had healed from this surgery before opening the account for her. 

“The purpose of the account was to document the memories of Milla’s childhood. We may not have the photos in our phones forever or save the pictures in her Gmail account, but at least they will always be up on Instagram,” she elaborated. 

Besides the basin incident, none of them has received any negative scrutiny. “I thank God that Milla has received so much love online.” 

Navigating social media as a parent also means creating a set of rules that govern what exactly one should share about the child online.

Michelle Wanjiku (Miss Tiramisu), also known as Shikie from YouTube channel “Over 25”, considered the same rules she used for her own profile, in managing her child Tshazi’s Instagram account. 

“There are some things I’m excited to share, like milestones, happy days and fun experiences we’ve had,” she explains.

“I also like to highlight some of the challenges that come with parenting and having a family, but I often do it in a light-hearted way and won’t post a serious family matter.”

Filters what to share

For instance, she wouldn’t post her argument with her husband, but she might post something about him leaving his socks on the floor, describing how that “drives her crazy.” 

“Both are situations my audience can identify with, but one is a personal matter, while the other is just a relationship pet peeve. Same goes for Tshazi. I wouldn’t document myself disciplining her, but I’ll show my audience some of the crazy things she, like other kids, would do, like getting play dough stuck in her hair,” she affirms. 

As the child grows and develops their own autonomy, a discussion on their digital footprint becomes increasingly necessary. While it may be a few years before she can have this crucial conversation with her child, Milly spoke to her friend and fellow parent, Wahu Kagwi, to better understand what to do when that time comes.

Wahu’s 14-year old daughter Tumiso recently opened her own account on Instagram. 

“When Milla gets to the age where she understands social media, we will definitely talk to her about it,” Milly adds. 

For now, she chooses to raise her child the same way she was raised by her mother. 

“I don’t support children being on their gadgets all the time. I’ve seen different children raised differently over the years, and I decided to parent the same way my mother did. That means no gadgets until after high school unless something changes.” 

Dangers on social media, such as cyberbullying, influenced this decision. She feels that Milla will be in a better position to handle these issues once she is an independent adult. Until then, she chooses to manage the child’s account herself while letting her know that it exists. 

Shikie’s daughter, Tshazi, recently turned five years old. According to her mother, she is well aware of her social media accounts. At the moment, she has nearly 4,500 followers on Instagram. 

“She’s aware of her page and asks to look at it from time to time on our phones. She knows about Instagram and TikTok, but we have made her aware that she will only access social media under our supervision,” Shikie says. 

Tshazi can also tell the difference between videos that are okay for kids to watch and those that are only for grown ups. 

“Mama or papa are the ones who decide which she can view, and she’s okay with that.”

However, even as the children are made aware of their digital personas, the evolving conversation on their autonomy presents a likelihood for disagreement when the child eventually turns 18. 

In 2016, an 18-year-old woman from Austria sued her parents for posting nearly 500 pictures of her childhood photos on Facebook. Speaking to news outlet The Local Austria at the time, the woman said that her parents knew “no shame and no limit — and didn’t care whether it was a picture of me sitting on the toilet or lying naked in my cot,” as each picture would eventually be made public.

The internet never forgets

Speaking to sociologist Diana Zambi, we established that it is important to note that depending on age, a child’s understanding of social media is limited.

“However, as the child continues to grow and become aware of their brand, they already have a digital footprint of them on the internet. Therefore, how the child’s need for self-actualisation is affected depends on the content that these parents put out in these spaces.” 

The need to be careful about what they post on the child’s page is only exacerbated by the fact that the internet never forgets. 

“Even if the picture was taken down, it is not completely erased. There is the possibility of the picture resurfacing when the child is in his teenage years when it can be used to troll, embarrass or bully them. This will definitely affect the child’s psychological health and self-esteem, yet they didn’t have the knowledge or choice as to whether the picture should have been posted or not,” Ms Zambi explains. 

Developing her child’s autonomy is something that Shikie strives to do from a young age. After all, family life is currently a big part of her brand online, and her family is comfortable with this reality. 

“My daughter is too young to comprehend social media at the moment, but there are some things I do to ensure that she is comfortable. For example, I don’t take pictures of her if she doesn’t want it done. I also show her the pictures and videos I take, and ask her if she likes them,” she says. 

“When she grows older and decides that she no longer wants to have a social media page, I will happily bring it down on her behalf. As for now, I intend on seeking consent and explaining before posting her pictures online,” she adds.

At just one year and six months old, it may be a while before Milla can comment on her social media presence. However, her mother reserves the right to create content on her behalf. 

“I dress her while Terence handles the creative part of her account. When she grows up and decides that she is uncomfortable with social media, she can choose to delete the account.” 

Sharing children’s content

Asked about her thoughts on children suing their parents for posting their pictures on social media, she quipped that it might not be possible for a child with an African upbringing, where children seldom question their parents on such decisions. 

“This borrows a lot from culture,” Ms Zambi explains. “In traditional African society, children were taught to respect and revere their elders, and such issues like taking legal action were against the values and norms of the African society. This has been passed down through generations.” 

However, this might change in future. 

“Depending on the severity of the case, we could see the emergence of such cases due to influence from the West and the rise of civil societies that advocate for the rights of children.”

The rise of the “kidfluencer” raises new questions on the ethics of sharing children’s content for financial gain.

In 2019, Forbes ranked eight-year-old Ryan Kaji as the highest earning child YouTuber, with gross earnings to the tune of $26 million (Sh2.8 billion) from his account, Ryan ToysReview. The page currently has 26.5 million subscribers. 

At just four months old, Milla had already gained her first client in the kidfluencing space. 

“The money she gets from endorsements goes towards her education and health insurance,” Milly shares. 

Beyond financial gain, Ms Zambi explains that children like Milla could stand to gain positive exposure from their social media presence in terms of building confidence, learning new things and acquiring better communication and organisational skills. 

“They become better prepared for the intricacies of the real world than their peers who are not exposed,” she affirms. 

This is already evident in Tshazi Simani’s life. 

“She’s a little fashionista and enjoys playing dress-up and picking out her outfits and sometimes, even asks me to take pictures of her if she likes the outfit she put together,” her mum quips. 

As for whether Tshazi will participate in any brand endorsements of her own, Shikie says, “Provided I support the brand’s values and she is open to it and enjoys it. Any revenue from this would be put aside for Tshazi’s benefit.”

Currently, the child only participates in content created by the family.

“As parents who choose to share information about our children online, we need to be cognisant of the fact that despite our good intentions, there are nasty people out there that could misuse what we share. So we try our best to share responsibly,” Shikie concludes.

“Also, choosing not to share one’s child online doesn’t automatically make one a better parent. Loving and protecting your children is what truly matters.”