Mothers actively share photos of their young babies on Facebook, but little research has explored why they do this and the benefits and risks of sharing. This research explored what baby pictures new mothers share on Facebook and how they decide what to share or not share. We conducted an interview study with 22 new mothers about how they share baby photos on Facebook. We introduce the concept of privacy stewardship to describe the responsibility parents take on when deciding what is appropriate to share about their children online and when ensuring that family and friends respect and maintain the integrity of those rules.
Types of photos mothers share on Facebook
Mothers share four kinds of baby photos on Facebook: photos where the baby looks “cute”, photos where the baby is doing something funny, photos where the baby is with family or friends, and photos of milestones (e.g., crawling, walking).
Types of photos mothers don’t share on Facebook
Mothers don’t share three kinds of baby photos: low quality photos, photos that convey negativity, or photos that overexpose the child (e.g., naked).
Benefits of sharing baby photos
- Documenting and archiving childhood as a “modern day babybook”
- Helping new mothers to identify as a good mother (e.g., displaying a happy and healthy family)
- Validation of good mothering through likes and comments on baby photos
Risks of sharing baby photos
- Limiting oversharing out of a concern that Facebook friends will get tired of seeing too many posts, including sensitivity to Facebook friends who might be struggling to conceive themselves
- Managing children’s digital footprints by trying to understand how a child might feel about their digital identity being shared online before young children have the ability to decide for themselves what should be posted about them
- Controlling information that other people such as friends and extended family share about a baby that may violate the parents’ preferences about what should be shared
Why this matters:
Benefits of “Imagined Audiences”
Imagined audiences have often been portrayed as presenting a challenge for people trying to craft a message for multiple or unknown audiences (e.g., posting a status that is appropriate for a boss as well as college friends), but these audiences offer benefits to new mothers. Mothers feel validated by the numerous likes and comments they receive on baby photos, even if they come from weak ties (e.g., high school acquaintances) who were not part of participants’ originally expected audience.
How will this generation of young children feel when they become old enough to find out that their digital footprint has been shaped since before their birth? From a privacy perspective, we might fear that pictures will not disappear, but from an archival perspective, we worry that they will. Parents face an almost impossible tension between the expectation that they will document and archive their children’s social lives, while simultaneously ensuring that their child’s privacy is protected and identity is carefully stewarded.
This study’s sample primarily included educated, married, heterosexual white women in the United States or who had lived in the United States at some point. Participants’ ages ranged from mid-twenties to late-thirties. This study does not address the role of fathers — an important gap to address.
Kumar, P. and Schoenebeck, S.Y. (2015). “The Modern Day Baby Book: Enacting Good Mothering and Stewarding Privacy on Facebook.” In Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing (CSCW ’15). Vancouver, Canada. March 14-18, 2015.
This research was approved by University of Michigan’s Institutional Review Board HUM00080547.