In Jada Pinkett Smith’s new memoir, Worthy, the actor lays down some revelations about her personal life, including the shocking disclosure that she and husband Will Smith have been separated since 2016.
The two are parents to son Jaden and daughter Willow Smith, both in their 20s. Will Smith is also father to Trey Smith, 30, with ex-wife Sheree Zampino.
In an interview with InStyle, Pinkett Smith described the process of asking her children for permission to tell these stories.
“What I did was tell them what’s in the book, what stories I was going to tell about them specifically, and [ask] if they were okay with that,” she said, revealing that her daughter “read a huge part of my book before it was even edited.”
Of course, most parents aren’t part of a Hollywood power couple. Gossip about our families won’t make headlines or spread across the internet – but anything we share on social media creates a record that can impact our children in both the present and the future.
Experts say that we should all be asking for our children’s consent to share information – and photos – in the way that Pinkett Smith described, assess whether it’s truly possible for our kids to comprehend what their consent means, and pause to reflect on the potential ramifications before we click “share.”
Consider your child’s feelings now — and years from now
As Pinkett Smith acknowledged when recounting the way she spoke with her kids about her memoir, writing about your child is different than writing about other key players in your life story.
“When it’s your kids, you have an obligation to protect them in their future,” said Devorah Heitner, the author of Growing Up in Public: Coming of Age in a Digital World.
This means anticipating reactions to whatever photo or anecdote you share, both in the present moment and years down the line.
Anne Marie Albano, a psychologist and clinical site director for the Center for Youth Mental Health at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, said that it’s not unusual for photos posted years ago by parents to cause issues for kids today.
“Youth report being embarrassed and angry when their friends, teachers or other adults share with others their parent’s Instagram photo of them going through potty training, or a video of them having a tantrum, or in some embarrassing moment that their parent posted, which often also described the child as ‘cute,’ ‘defiant,’ ‘shy’ or by some other label that is then used to embarrass the child,” Albano said.
Something that seems cute and innocent to you now may not feel that way to your child years into the future.
“Capturing the child’s activity or reactions may very much be adorable and touching the heart of the parents and others, at that moment,” Albano said. “But posting is forever. And as children age and develop their own ideas, their personalities and their interests, posts can lead to negative emotions and feelings about themselves.”
In other words, kids may become upset at you for sharing, or your past comments about them may colour their current perception of themselves. Neither of these is a desirable outcome.
Be cautious about revealing sensitive family information online
When it comes to serious news, such as a divorce or job loss, we all understand that it’s better for kids to hear about it directly from parents. But sometimes parents aren’t savvy enough to keep things under wraps online.
For example, I remember learning about the divorce of a couple I knew via a comment that one of them posted in a large, international Facebook group. I doubt the person who made the comment realised that she was disclosing the information to me, or even had any idea that I was in the group. What if my own kids then heard me talking about their divorce? What if the couple’s own children found out this way?
Unfortunately, Albano said, this sometimes happens. “We have seen many children and teenagers who find out about major life changes through social media, and not directly from their parents,” she said. “Among the most difficult have been youth whose friends tell them during school that ‘your parents are getting divorced’ or ‘your dad was fired from his job,’ resulting in humiliation and shame, compounding the sadness and grief accompanying the loss and stress that is happening in a family.”
If you’re going through something painful like a divorce, it can be tempting to reach out online. But unless you’re certain that you can remain anonymous, there are good reasons to refrain.
“You might want the support that might come from being on social, but it might be at too great a cost if there are children,” Heitner said. “What if they go back and see those posts later, they learn things about the reasons that maybe you never needed them to know?”
You absolutely deserve support, but it may be best to limit some topics to in-person conversations with folks like close friends and your therapist.
However, after you’ve discussed a big life change with your child, Heitner said that social media posts amicably announcing a divorce or separation — such as “we’re now two households” — can be “a way to get the news out.” Of course, make sure to clear such a post with your child beforehand. You might even consider having them help you write it.
Assess if your child can truly give consent
While adult children, such as Pinkett Smith’s, have the maturity to comprehend what sharing their stories and images may mean, most parents these days begin documenting their parenting journey on social media well before their child comes of age — it’s not unusual for someone’s presence online to begin with an ultrasound photo.
As your child becomes their own person, remember that context matters. A bed-wetting story about a 3-year-old is much less likely to embarrass a child in the future than a similar story featuring a third grader. As parents, it’s our job to anticipate how our children may react to anything that we share — in addition to explicitly asking for their permission to post.
Heitner said that it’s best practice to ask your child before sharing, but you also have to keep in mind how much they are able to understand the idea of information or pictures being public. If you have any lingering doubts, Heitner advised that you refrain from posting. Even if your 4-year-old says yes, take a moment to imagine what their 14- or 18-year-old self might say.
“Young adults are going to be dating and applying for jobs,” Heitner noted, and might not see potty or tantrum photos as cute or harmless.
“You can always share with friends or share with your grandparents, but posting is hard to get back,” she continued. A text message or email, even to a large group of people, is easier to control than a social media post. “Once you do it there, it’s very easy to lose control over the audience and for your kid to get blowback,” Heitner said.
Albano described how, for children, not every “yes” means the same thing. “Some children will say yes but not really mean yes,” she said. “It is difficult for some kids to express their real feeling to parents or adults in authority for fear of disappointing them, so think carefully about your child and what they really would want you to do. Put yourself in your child’s place, and picture yourself in the middle of the cafeteria at lunch, and kids around them are taking out their phones and laughing. ... Could your post potentially cause that scene?”
In addition to future embarrassment, your child’s unique face is also data for companies to mine using facial recognition software. This is why some parents have taken to posting photos in which their child’s face is blurred or concealed with an emoji, or only the back of their head is visible.
The question of consent is a particularly thorny one for parents of children who have disabilities that impact the way they think and communicate. Heitner pointed to criticism of the book “To Siri With Love,” which originated as a 2014 New York Times essay that a mother wrote about her autistic son’s touching relationship with iPhone’s personal assistant bot. A number of autistic people came out strongly against the way the author wrote about her son, and the fact that she was writing about him at all.
Whether you’re posting snapshots on social media or writing essays for a wider audience, it’s important to weigh the particular considerations of your own child before publicly sharing their picture or their story.
Include your child in decisions about sharing information
Regardless of their age, you should start by requesting your child’s consent in a way that makes clear to them what sharing might mean. Albano suggested asking, “Do you want other people (your friends, their parents, our family and anyone else) to see this?”
If they say no, let the conversation end there, Albano advised. “Thank them for giving you their decision, and let them know that you will do as they say,” she said. And don’t try to talk them out of it by saying things like “are you sure you’re not being too sensitive? This is really funny, and I think people will like it,” she added.
Likewise, Heitner noted that “having boundaries and letting our kids get to say no is of course great modeling for them, and then they know they can have those boundaries,” both with you and others in their lives.
Another option is to shift your approach. Instead of thinking of you posting about your child on your accounts, think of you and your child curating and sharing posts together.
“This shared activity on social media can assist your child in developing healthy habits for social media and also learn about healthy messaging,” Albano said. “When done together and with everyone’s consent and voices reflected in the posting, the result can be a family bonding activity that is captured for the ages.”