Communication tools such as blogs, Facebook, and Instagram make sharing the joys and challenges of parenting easier than ever. Issues once aired “over the back fence” can now be hashed out online and a little affirmation is just a “like” or an emoji away.
What many well-intentioned parents fail to consider, however, are the consequences of sharing their children’s milestones online. Revealing even positive achievements can lead to the use or misuse of your child’s information in a manner or for an audience you never intended. Consider these possibilities:
- Digital “kidnapping.” Strangers have been caught on Facebook copying photos of other people’s children and claiming them as their own.
- Photos altered and redistributed. Some parents have been horrified to find that innocent photos of their children (in the bath, toilet training) have been picked up, edited, and posted to websites known for trafficking images to pedophiles.
- Bullying and teasing. The “all’s well that ends well” anecdote about a preschooler’s potty accident will, thanks to caching, turn up in his now thirteen-year-old classmate’s Google search results. Let the middle school humiliation begin!
- Digital profiling. Information is big business and companies are paid handsomely for personal profiles, even of children. According to a study called “Children Seen but Not Heard,” “[The] children’s merchandise market is in the hundreds of billion dollars in the U.S. alone, it is not surprising that data brokers are already seeking to compile dossiers on children. Using the information that parents post about their children, data brokers can create mini-profiles that can be continually enhanced throughout an individual’s lifetime.”
- Crime and safety. It is tempting to think that by only using a child’s first name or initials online she is protected, but the inferences that can be made from very basic information combined with public records are startling. In the same NYU study, researchers point out that by tracing a parent’s social media data to voter registration materials, children’s identities can be inferred, including names, locations, ages and birthdays, and religions. This information makes it much easier for a stranger to approach your child.
At the same time, countless parents have been helped by the advice and community of fellow parents, especially when struggling with weighty issues such as a child’s health or tackling important questions about sleep, nutrition, education, and discipline. How can we balance the benefits of “sharenting” with potential deficits to a child’s safety and privacy?
In her 2017 paper “Sharenting: Children’s Privacy in the Age of Social Media“, mom and legal scholar Stacey Steinberg suggests best practices parents can take:
- 1.Familiarize Yourself with the Privacy Policies of the Sites with Which You Share. Many social sharing sites, such as Go2s, let you select a specific audience for each photo or post shared and some allow you to hide your content from Google’s search algorithms. Go2s goes a step further and does not allow Google to index its content at all and provides features where you can opt to disallow reposting and keep post responses private.
- 2. Set Up Notifications to Alert You When Your Child’s Name Appears in a Google Search Result.
- 3. Consider Sometimes Sharing Anonymously. If you find a helpful online forum, consider joining with a pseudonym and do not disclose your child’s name when referenced. For example, Go2s will allow you to use an “alias” on your account and keep your legal name hidden.
- 4.Use Caution Before Sharing Your Child’s Actual Location. Avoid describing your child’s location in posts and remember to shut off your phone’s GPS before posting on social media and blog sites.
- 5. Give Your Child “Veto Power” over Online Disclosures. Steinberg gives age four as a benchmark. “By age four, children have an awareness of their sense of self. At this young age, they are able to build friendships, have the ability to reason, and begin to compare themselves with others. Parents who post regularly can talk about the Internet with their children and should ask young children if they want friends and family to know about the subject matter being shared.”
- 6. Consider Not Sharing Pictures That Show Your Children in Any State of Undress.
- 7. Consider the Effect Sharing Can Have on Your Child’s Current and Future Sense of Self and Well-Being.
Remember, web pages are cached and posts can be saved by others before they are deleted. In Steinberg’s words, “The full reach of the Internet is far greater than many users consider.” Perhaps the best practice of all is giving children the gift of creating their own online identities, later in life, when they are ready to take their own steps into the digital spotlight.