What To Do When Your Parents Are Embarrassing You Online

Family therapists share expert tips on how to confront the people who raised you.

This story is part of Protect Your Parents From the Internet Week.

Proud parents love sharing what — and whom — they're proud of. But, when both you (their kid) and social media are involved, that pride can sometimes cross privacy boundaries.

A few years ago, a woman we’ll call Ashleigh, who requested that BuzzFeed News not use her real name, decided to have some intimate photos taken of her, intended for a private audience, her then-boyfriend. One of the photos, a headshot, was fairly innocuous, so Ashleigh made it her profile picture. Eventually, she removed the picture — but not before her mother saw it.

“She loves it and will make it part of almost any post about me. Every few weeks, she makes it her cover photo,” Ashleigh told BuzzFeed News. “What I know that she doesn’t know is that it was part of a boudoir shoot. It makes me so uncomfortable every time she puts it up there.” Her mom recently posted a status about one of Ashleigh’s Strava runs, with the sultry pic alongside it.

Instead of confronting her mother, Ashleigh said she would rather “just pretend she doesn’t exist online.”

Our online lives are now multigenerational — in fact, users age 55 and older are fueling Facebook’s recent growth, according to a 2018 study from eMarketer — and sometimes members of other generations don’t quite get it. For years our parents and grandparents have warned us about the dangers of the internet (strangers in chatrooms! social media addiction! porn!). But everything suggests that they, bewildered baby boomers, may be the real threat.

Actor and Gooper Gwyneth Paltrow inadvertently sparked a debate about privacy when she posted a selfie together with her daughter, Apple Martin, to Instagram. “Mom we have discussed this. You may not post anything without my consent,” Apple commented on the pic. Paltrow defended herself by saying her daughter’s ski mask–obscured face couldn’t be seen, seemingly missing the point that, perhaps, Apple doesn’t want to live in the public eye in the same way her mom does. Blogger Christie Tate came under fire after her 9-year-old daughter discovered years of personal posts and pictures of her on Google, and asked Tate to remove the blogs. Tate ultimately refused, and then wrote a widely shared essay about the saga in the Washington Post.

According to family therapists, these kinds of conversations with your parents — about posting a photo you didn’t consent to, or a life update you’d rather keep private, or a comment to one of your posts that should be text — don’t have to be explosive. Here’s are some dos and don’ts for talking to your family about not sharing your shit online.

DO assume that their intentions are good.

“As with any criticism or confrontation, start with the assumption that the parents are good people with good intentions, even when they mess up,” said Eileen Kennedy-Moore, a Princeton, New Jersey–based psychologist and author of Kid Confidence. This will help set an affectionate, nonconfrontational tone for the conversation.

DO start the conversation by asking permission.

Open the discussion with language like “Hey, I was wondering if we could have a conversation about the thing that made you feel uncomfortable?” suggests Erika Martinez, a licensed psychologist from Miami. Doing so may help with the paradigm shift that occurs when children become adults. “When parents are raising their kids, they feel ownership over them. Once the kids become adults, there’s no more ownership of that individual,” said Martinez.

DO have a plan for what you’re going to say.

Karen Ruskin, a licensed marriage and family therapist, prefers that her patients are direct, recommending the “sandwich” method. Start with validation, then go into your concern, and end with thanks.

First, Ruskin explained, validate your parents by saying, “Mom, Dad, I really understand how much you love me, that you want to share my news with everybody.” Then, comes the meat: “...and we have a good enough relationship that I can share my discomfort about this and request that you don’t share or ask my permission before you do.”

Finally, conclude by thanking them for taking the time to listen: “Thank you for hearing me out, because I know you have a different perspective. By asking for my consent, I can feel comfortable about what’s being posted.” This final statement is an opportunity to summarize your concerns and set expectations, Ruskin says.

DON’T say “but” before delivering the “meat” of your concern.

Note the “and” in Ruskin’s example. “Don’t say ‘but,’ because it negates the first part of the sentence,” she said.

DON’T just give examples of what’s not okay.

Martinez says showing your parents posts that are appropriate, in addition to the offending posts, will help them be better equipped in the future. Perhaps a post with a photo of the entire family, that includes you, or a reshare of something you yourself put online.

DO use the situation as an opportunity to teach your parents about privacy settings, and the dangers of sharing personal information online.

“[The conversation] can absolutely serve as an affectionate exercise on updating them on technology,” said Dr. Joshua Coleman, a licensed psychologist and cochair of the Council on Contemporary Families. Teaching your parents about selecting a less public audience when sharing on Facebook or setting their social media accounts to private can not only benefit you, but help protect their privacy as well.

Ruskin suggests language like “Would it be okay with you if I showed you some tricks that really protect you from bad actors online?” — again, asking permission before proceeding.

DON’T back down.

Coleman says that if your parents think you’re being overly sensitive, or if they escalate the conversation, you have to escalate too. “You could say ‘If you can’t agree with this, I guess I have to be more careful in what I disclose to you, because this is really important to me,'” he said.

DO try to negotiate.

Megan (not her real name) would send photos to her mother, in private, that her mom would upload to Facebook. Megan responded by unfriending her mom. “I think I made her cry,” she told BuzzFeed News.

Eventually, they both agreed to a deal on Megan’s terms: Her mother could only post pictures of Megan with Megan’s permission, and only photos her mother had taken. “We’re in a better place with Facebook now,” Megan said.

Martinez liked Megan’s approach: “I think that sounds really healthy. That sounds like solid boundaries set by the daughter.”

Do your parents share a little too much about you on the internet? Tell us.

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