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Christmas sharenting, transparency... and Mary Berry

By Vicki Shotbolt, Parent Zone CEO


You’ve nailed the Christmas shopping, ordered the turkey (with legs after last year’s turkey crown disaster) and can still feel the glow of your triumph with the homemade sheep outfit for the nativity play.  Exhausted, but on top of things, your Christmas tree owes a debt to Pinterest and you are ready for a sit down with a nice glass of red wine. Possibly even mulled.  But before you pour, you have a quick look at your Instagram account, flicking between that and your Twitter feed.

Damn. Your festive bubble is burst when you realise that you have failed in one significant area. You haven’t captured every preparation and shared it online. Your family life has remained decidedly private whilst fellow parents have documented every purchase, every decoration and every step along the path to a perfect sharented Christmas. For a moment you wonder whether there is any inducement large enough to force your older children to pop on some festive knitwear and have a group shot, and then you give yourself a shake and return to the wine. 

Sound familiar? (Apart from the turkey crown bit, which I know is far fetched –no one buys those.) It might if you are one of the 20% of parents who doesn’t routinely post pictures of your children online. The majority of us are snapping, sharing, vlogging, blogging and generally taking our parenting into the digital dimension. Today’s children will feature in almost 1000 pictures by the time they reach the age of 5, and only a tiny percentage of parents will talk to their children about whether that’s OK.


‘Sharing a picture meant letting a friend pick up your snaps from Boots’

When I started Parent Zone in 2005, Facebook was just a year old. Sharing a picture meant letting a friend pick up your snaps from Boots. The last 10 years have been transformational for families and one of the most visible changes has been the public documenting of a private space.  The world that parents are raising children in today is profoundly different to the one that Parent Zone entered ten years ago and I have no doubt that parents will be tackling a different set of challenges in another ten years.  

By then, children are unlikely to enjoy anything like the level of privacy that we took for granted in our formative years.  Their pictures will be in cyberspace, whether they like the idea or not.

And what of the other changes that have happened in that time? Listing the new services would take too long so let’s stick to behaviors.  Just over 15% of people between the ages of 18-34 [1] meet their ‘significant other’ online.  Another survey suggests that in 20 years’ time, that figure will have increased to 50%.  This makes any messages about being careful who you meet online particularly important - you could end up married to a boring old fart for the rest of your life.

More seriously, parents are going to have to think carefully about what we teach young people about the internet and new friendships. The message about an online friend not being a ‘proper’ friend already sounds outdated and slightly silly. 


‘Parents have to be ready with a massive dose of truth and facts to balance some of the nonsense young people come across online’

80% of [2] us go online first for information about our health, not because we don’t trust medical professionals but because we are ‘curious information seekers, according to the Pew Institute. I’ve certainly diagnosed myself with multiple disorders with the help of various websites.

I realised I needed to stop when I thought I had blue skin disorder.  It’s not serious, thankfully, and is just as the name suggests. Your skin turns blue.

I discovered I had jumped to the wrong conclusion when further reading revealed that blue skin disorder is genetic and what I actually had was a leaky Biro.

Luckily, I retain enough common sense to realise when I’m crossing the ‘that cannot be true’ line. Imagine the vulnerable young person looking for information about their sexuality, being confronted with sites like ’10 ways to cure your homosexuality’ or ‘Three Lies About Premarital Sex’. 

If the internet is our first port of call for information, parents have to be ready with a massive dose of truth and facts to balance some of the nonsense young people come across online.

Speaking of nonsense, the last ten years have rewritten the rules on content.  Today, 13-24-year-olds watch more online content from services like YouTube than they do traditional television. They think that TV has too many adverts compared to online (that’s the nonsense, bit by the way – many just don’t recognize when they are being sold to). 

Naughty – OK, illegal – streaming services like Putlocker make watching series that are not yet available in the UK, or films that have not yet been released, easy.  Every second, 372 people are typing the word ‘adult’ into a search engine and every day, 2.5 billion emails are sent containing porn.   


‘Tools to minimise what children see cannot protect them from all the nasty content online’

The idea that tools are going to recreate the age restrictions that parents rely on in the offline world is ridiculous. According to Sandvine, a Canadian networking company, in April 2015 30% of all Internet traffic was encrypted. They suggest that by the end of this year (not long now) that figure will have risen to 50%. 

For anyone not totally familiar with encryption and why it matters, the bottom line is that encrypted traffic can’t be filtered because no one can see what is being transmitted and therefore your ISP or mobile operator can’t control it. 

So parents, by all means make best use of tools to minimise the content your children are able to see, but do so in the certain knowledge that you cannot protect them from all the nasty content that’s online.

As the end of the year approaches and Parent Zone anticipates the next ten years, I hope that we will continue to be at the forefront of the real debate about parents and their role in raising children who are resilient enough to cope with growing up in a digital world. 

We were the first organisation to recognise that parents needed high quality, accessible, non-judgmental information from experts to help them understand the internet and all the challenges it presents.

In partnership with Vodafone, we now distribute a million copies a year of Digital Parenting Magazine to schools, police forces and local authorities to be given directly to parents. In 2013 we launched our training programme. We now have over 800 professionals trained to work with parents in their own settings, providing support and information when and where they need it.


‘Parents don’t do their job in a vacuum’

We have led the conversation about resilience. In 2014, with support from Virgin Media and the epic research abilities of the Oxford Internet Institute, and specifically Dr Andy Przybylski, we promoted the fact that the two things that built online resilience were parenting and young people’s own confidence and digital skills. 

In 2015, in partnership with CEOP, we launched Parent Info, the first newsfeed service for schools to deliver information to parents about all of the issues that are either caused or amplified by the Internet. 

Looking ahead to 2016, we are launching the first parenting programme in the world designed to help parents keep up and stay ahead of the challenges of digital parenting.

We are focusing on our youth offer so that we can support parents when they want to have resources for their children when the conversations need backup.  We’re looking into the impact of the internet on young people’s mental health and we’re doing something else.

We are pushing back. We absolutely agree that parents are the people who can and should guide children through the digital age but parents don’t do their job in a vacuum. Society influences families and families rely on society to support them with legislation and appropriate rules and safeguards.

In 2016 we would like to see:

  • Transparency about the level of harm experienced by young people on different services.   If services know that they are being used to groom and exploit children (and they do – IWF published research this year in which they said they knew which services were used most often by children to share sexually explicit images) that information should be public. Imagine a nursery or sports club where children were being harmed being allowed to say ‘sorry, we don’t share that information’! You can see how out of step the current situation is.
  • A review of the legislation that protects children so that it can be brought into the 21st Century. The Children’s Act was last amended in 2004 largely in response to the Victoria Climbie enquiry[3]. It’s time it was looked at again.
  • Major investment in parenting support. Nothing has impacted on parenting more dramatically than the digital age.  Parents need urgent support. The old ways of figuring out what was OK – your own family and friends, peer to peer support, and professional help from teachers and health professionals – simply aren’t enough.  The world is changing too fast for that to be effective. We need to help parents to learn different parenting skills and we need to do it before it is too late.

But before we crack on with that, I’m going to dust off my Mary Berry cookbook. Having thought I had Christmas under control I realise I haven’t even started on my pickling and baking yet…


Image: Nikos Koutoulas CCBY2