Is it ever okay to discuss your child’s problems online? What if you are merely seeking advice? How do you know where to draw the line?
It is tempting to turn to the internet for quick answers and support. Perhaps your child is out of control. Or depressed. Or struggling in school. And you need advice… fast. It is comforting, helpful, and downright cathartic to vent and ask for guidance. We all know how worries and frustration can overwhelm. No family escapes the parenting years unscathed!
But when you post personal, detailed, and yes, unintentionally incriminating information online, it may affect your child’s social and emotional well-being, and leave a trail that persists well into the future.
We warn our kids about the risks of posting embarrassing selfies, drunken party photos, or worse. We educate them about cyberbullying, and instill a healthy fear of what they might encounter online, along with tools for how to protect themselves. We remind them that whatever they post could reappear years later — and negatively impact a job prospect or college admissions.
Yet, many parents abandon all reserve when anxiety takes hold. The internet entices with the promise of delivering just the right clue to understanding our child’s struggles. And sometimes, it just feels good to know other parents feel the same way. In online forums, Facebook groups, and other venues, parents reveal confidential information about their child’s behaviors. Some post potentially incriminating information, such as concerns about drug abuse, acting out sexual behaviors, disciplinary problems, academic difficulties, or even actual IQ test scores or mental health diagnoses.
When desperate for answers, it is easy to forget that sharing confidential information not only puts your child at risk, but also is a breach of privacy. Under duress, it is tempting to throw caution to the wind. So-called “closed” Facebook or other online groups typically boast 1,000 or more members and offer no promise of confidentiality, privacy, or guarantee that another “anonymous” member might not know your child. And while the immediacy and presumed anonymity of online feedback is certainly appealing, comments from strangers are no substitute for professional advice or the wisdom sometimes readily available among trusted family or friends who truly know your situation.
Some parents ask for their child’s permission to share information online. This is a healthy first step. However, children cannot fully provide consent, or possess the maturity and wisdom to predict how current actions will affect them years from now. That is why parents are required to sign consent forms, and why children are not allowed to vote or make legal decisions. A child might agree to your request to post information for various reasons — to please you, avoid conflict, or because long-range concerns are just not on his or her radar. However, it is our job as parents to determine whether a decision with possible future implications is in their best interest — not assume that we can rely on their judgment.
As both a psychologist and parent, I urge you to think twice before oversharing online about your parenting struggles. Years from now, when your adult child is seeking a new job, vying for a security clearance, or possibly running for public office, data dredged from the internet about his or her mental health problems, dabbling with drugs, or cheating on a test in school, may limit career options. The momentary reassurance or advice you received just might not be worth the potential risk.
Before sharing, ask yourself the following:
- Could this potentially embarrass or upset my child?
- How would it affect him if his friends, teachers or community members accessed this information?
- Even if she gives the okay now, will she resent this years from now?
- What are the potential privacy risks now — and well into the future? If there is a privacy breach, could this potentially affect future job opportunities, college admissions, or my adult child’s reputation?
When sharing specific information online might pose a risk, exercise restraint, seek out real-time support from trusted friends and family, pursue expert support from licensed mental health professionals, attorneys, educators, school counselors, and medical professionals, and consider in-person support groups, such as Al-Anon or the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Gather as much advice as you need through trusted websites, and consider using Google Scholar, where you can access peer-reviewed journals. But please use caution when sharing information about your child. You won’t regret it.