From Oversharing to Sharenting: How Experts Govern Parents and Their Social Media Use

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A newborn swaddled in a parent’s arms. A kindergartner posing on the first day of school. Such images, commonly found in family photo collections, now regularly appear on social media. At the same time, public discourse asks if—or sometimes asserts that—posting images online might put children’s privacy, dignity, and autonomy at risk. Prior research has documented the pressure, scrutiny, and judgment that parents, especially mothers, endure. It seems that parents’ use of social media is yet another cause for concern. How did this happen?

This dissertation examines how power, manifesting as expertise, works through three fields of discourse to govern parents’ social media conduct. Grounding this project in post-structuralist epistemology, I study this question using the analytical technique of governmentality, which is a means of tracing how authorities intervene in the lives of individuals. First, I illustrate how a specific site of social media expertise, the once-popular blog STFU, Parents, constructs the problem of “oversharing” as a form of inappropriate social media use. Second, I explain, how news media expertise constructs the problem of “sharenting,” a portmanteau of the words “share” and “parenting,” as a form of risk to children. Third, I discern how academic expertise obliges parents to govern their own social media conduct by appealing to their subjectivity. In each field of discourse, I observe how expertise frames parents’ social media conduct as a matter of individual responsibility, even though much of what happens to information online lies outside individual control. I use this analysis to suggest future directions for research on social media and privacy that goes beyond the gendered public/private boundary and engages with the world as a site of entangled relations rather than individual entities.