Sharenting: Digital Dangers to Transgender Children

By Laura Lee

*Names of people in this post have been changed 

On a particularly slow Wednesday afternoon I sat with my co-workers waiting for our next patient to arrive. The conversation weaved its way through assorted topics when my co-worker, “Kathy” (whose eyes were glued to her phone the entire time) said “Oh, I have to show you this.” “This” turned out to be her friend’s Facebook page where the woman was documenting her child’s transition online. Kathy went on to tell us that her friend’s child had come to her about a year ago (at the age of five) and said “Mommy, I’m not a little boy, I’m a little girl.”   

 Since then, she had begun to wear dresses and let her hair grow long. There were photos of a smiling family with captions like “So proud of our daughter Tiffany” and “You go girl!” under pictures of a little girl playing Tee Ball and baking cookies with Mom. The post from that morning proclaimed in loud capital letters: “ONE YEAR AGO TODAY OUR AMAZING SON TYLER BECAME OUR BEAUTIFUL DAUGHTER TIFFANY.” Under the post was a picture of “Tyler,” scabby kneed in dirty overalls, beside a picture of Tiffany, long blonde hair glinting in the sun. The pride and acceptance were genuine, you could feel it coming off the page, but all I could think was “should she really be posting this?” 

“Sharenting” as defined by the Collins English Dictionary is “the habitual use of social media to share news, images, etc. of one’s children” [1]. While we all likely know someone whose social media feeds are endless displays of their kids, the actual numbers are staggering. According to a 2010 study by internet security company AVG, 92% of children “have an online presence by the time they are two” as well as 80% of babies [2]. By the time they are 13, parents have posted about 1300 images (photo and video) of their children online [3]. These are over a thousand images that are now a part of the public domain. These images become an unretractable part of a child’s future, potentially affecting jobs, relationships, and most dangerous of all, their safety. This is something that all parents need to consider, but none more so than the parents of a transgender child. 

Transgender children face many more obstacles than their cisgender counterparts. According to The National Center for Transgender Equality, 75% of transgender youth feel “unsafe at school” [4]. The website Beyond Bullying says that over 83% of transgender kids report verbal attacks and 35% say they have experienced physical attacks as well [5]. The threat of online photos documenting their sex at birth can ultimatlely make this  bullying worse. This danger is not relegated to the classroom; it is only the beginning of it.  

A 2011 study estimated that the average Facebook user was only “passing acquaintances” with one out of five Facebook friends [3]. This means that photos are being viewed by virtual strangers who then have the opportunity to turn them into weapons. In a world where “trans panic” (defined as “a legal strategy which asks the jury to find that a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity is to blame for the defendant’s violent reaction, including murder”) is still legal in 40 states, shouldn’t a transgender person have complete autonomy over their gender identity and who they want to share it with [6]? 

While there are some cases (like “Mommy” Instagram influencers) where posting photos of your children is done to generate profit, most parents share their children’s lives out of pride and a longing for a sense of community. However, parents need to think long and hard about the impact of their habitual posting on their children’s futures. They also need to consider the issue of consent and what it means to take that away from their child.  

Sometimes I think of Tiffany and wonder how she will feel about her mother’s social media feeds ten or fifteen years down the road. I wonder if the creation of her media presence before she was even old enough to give consent will rob her of the ability to share with others in her own way. I wonder if that smiling little girl will one day be shamed, bullied, brutalized, or even killed because she never had the chance to be in control of her own story. These are the things that parents need to think of, no matter how difficult it may be. A child’s life can be fragile, a transgender child’s even more so. While no parent knows who their child will grow up to be, everyone deserves the opportunity to define their own narrative, no matter how young –and not to have it defined for them. 

Endnotes: 

[1] “Sharenting.” In Collins Online Dictionary, 2020. https://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/

[2] “Digital Birth: Welcome to the Online World.” businesswire: A Berkshire Hathaway Company, October 6, 2010. https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20101006006722/en/Digital-Birth-Online-World

[3] Baron, Jessica. “Posting About Your Kids Online Could Damage Their Futures.” Forbes, December 16, 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jessicabaron/2018/12/16/parents-who-post-about-their-kids-online-could-be-damaging-their-futures/#33d0e2c527b7

[4] “Issues: Youth and Students.” National Center for Transgender Equality, 2020. https://transequality.org/issues/youth-students

[5] “Transphobic Bullying.” Beyond Bullying, 2020. https://www.beyondbullying.com/transphobic-bullying

[6] Holden, Alexandra. “The Gay/Trans Panic Defense: What It Is and How to End It.” American Bar Association, 2019. https://www.americanbar.org/groups/crsj/publications/member-features/gay-trans-panic-defense/

Laura Lee (she/her) is a first year Women’s History MA candidate.  Her thesis work will be an exploration of the representation of child-free women throughout history and popular culture.  She loves pugs, travel, theater, sub-zero temperatures and any activity that involves jumping off a cliff.

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