It used to be that friends and family exchanged stories about their children at get togethers. The children under discussion were often there and could say “Oh, Mom!” or “Oh, Dad!” and everyone would laugh. And, after the party, the child could yell at the mother or discuss with the father how they felt about the story that was shared.
Now stories about children, information about children, and images of children are shared by parents all the time– and without the child’s awareness, It’s done online and for various reasons. Sometimes the child looks adorable or has accomplished something, sometimes the parents want to share information about their child’s ongoing development, sometimes the parent is looking for support because some aspect of their parenting is difficult. And sometimes parents share in order to meet their own needs for gratification– to see how many likes they can get, how much support they can get for themselves, etc. And regardless of parental motivation, the today’s audience includes not only friends and family, but often strangers with varying agendas of their own.
Stacey Steinberg has written a brilliant paper for the Emory Law Journal which includes discussion of parental sharing of information and images of children on social media and the effects of this sharing. She has a name for this kind of sharing: “sharenting.” She details the legal history of the rights of children when it comes to privacy and she provides suggestions as to best practices for online sharing of information regarding children. She states that “sharenting … must be a central part of the child rearing discourse.”
A great deal has been written about how young people create digital identities, overshare, go online rather than relating to each other in person, etc. However, not much has been written about how parents may overshare regarding their children, including posting images of their kids that might prove embarrassing to the children either now or later. This information and these images are forever, and the question has not been asked enough about what effect these permanently available images will have on children’s lives.
In her article, Steinberg alerts us to the following information derived from recent studies:
- 1 in 4 kids are embarrassed about the information their parents are sharing about them on social media.
- By age 9, children have strong reactions to what parents are posting online about them.
- In the U.S. 92% of 2-year-olds already have an online presence.
- Children are two times as likely as adults to say that adults overshare on social media and that they should not do this.
Parents see themselves as their children’s protectors. They have the right to deny permission for their children’s schools or teams to disseminate images of their children to the public. But have parents been thinking about where the images THEY post are going, and how their children may feel about having these images seen by a large audience?
The following is scary but important to keep in mind: images of children posted online can be downloaded and used by others. One example of the misuse of photographs is called “digital kidnapping” where an image posted by a parent is used by another adult, and the child pictured is portrayed as belonging to the other adult. Another danger is that photos of children posted on social media can be shared to child pornography sites AND the images can be traced back to the original Facebook page. In these cases, further information about the child can be gained, including the child’s home address or school name. Additionally, sites now exist purely for the purpose of ridiculing images that have been posted on social media. Can you imagine if an image you posted of your child ended up on one of these and your child saw this?
These dangers must be weighed against the benefits of posting about our children.
Stacy Steinberg advocates a public health model for disseminating information about the dangers of establishing an online presence for children. She suggests that, as with the dangers of secondhand smoke or the importance of wearing seat belts, that health professionals should compile and distribute lists of best practices when it comes to posting online about our children.
And Steinberg suggests these best practices:
- Parents should familiarize themselves with the privacy practices of any sites where they intend to share images of their children or information about their children. This way they will know who has access to the information they are posting.
- Parents should set up notifications to alert them when their child’s name appears in a Google search. This way they can know who is looking at their child online,
- Parents should consider sharing anonymously sometimes. For example, when using online support groups for help in parenting or gaining information about how to raise a child with a chronic illness or disability.
- Parents should use caution before disclosing a child’s location, home address, or school name, or team name on ANY site.
- Parents should discuss with their children what they are posting and give the child veto power over online disclosures about them. For example, parents can ask, “do you want me to post this picture of you?” or “do you want me to post about your award?” In doing so, the parents should also hold in mind the child’s long term best interests and understand that children, especially younger children, may say that it is OK to post something about themselves but not actually be able to judge the soundness of this decision.
- Parents should consider not sharing photos when the child is undressed or even partially undressed.
Parents generally have good intentions when they post about their children online. But this is a new world. For most of us, there was no online posting when we were children, and there are complex issues to consider about the opportunities and the risks we face in posting about ourselves and our children online.