Like most 20-somethings, I’ve been on the internet for a long time. Long before there were children in my life or even a serious love interest (unless you count a junior high crush), I was spending my free time sending emails to girlfriends on Juno, then chatting on AIM, writing out my teenage angst on Xanga, and then posting songs from my favorite screamo band on Myspace.
So I grew up online. And then, when social media really took off, I was in high school and then moving on to college and adulthood. I grew accustomed to living my life out online, posting pictures of my wedding, my first home, and then my first baby. It was what I had always done, and it didn’t cross my mind that having children should change that in anyway.
Now, I’ve been posting pictures of my children online for over five years. I’ve been careful, to an extent, keeping the pictures appropriate, especially as my children grew older. Recently, I started to wonder if being careful wasn’t enough. They’re too young to consent to me posting pictures of them online, so is every post I make about them an invasion of their privacy?
It’s hard not to feel a little anxious about the choices I’ve made to live my life so transparently online. What will my children think about my social media choices when they’re teens? In 2016, for instance, an 18-year-old sued her parents for sharing over 500 pictures of her childhood on social media. According to USA Today, these Austrian parents hadn’t practiced a lot of discretion, posting pictures of her using the bathroom and sleeping unclothed.
For a generation that became parents in the age of social media, it’s difficult to know what is and isn’t appropriate to share. Cases like these are raising serious questions about each child’s right to privacy, along with the potential for legal consequences when parents don’t respect that right.
Every Child Has a Right to Privacy
“It is very important to teach children how to tell their own story and direct their own narrative,” explains Rob Holmes, a private investigator and security consultant who specializes in handling privacy issues, threats, and intellectual property.
Unfortunately, for children who have grown up in the social media age, many parents are creating narratives for their children long before that child can consent to sharing that information online. It isn’t the occasional video of a child’s first steps or a photo of their preschool graduation, either. It’s the day-to-day of their lives—good, bad, and embarrassing.
A Nominet and Parent Zone study reveals the sharing done by parents is much more extensive than most realize, with the average parenting sharing roughly 1,500 pictures of their child online before their fifth birthday. This level of oversharing presents two serious issues, in the the opinion of Lisa Vallejos, PhD, who shares her thoughts with HealthyWay from the perspective of a therapist and a mother herself.
First, there are the issues of safety, which is a concern every parent should consider when posting pictures of their child online. In each image shared, including those shared to private accounts, there is code called metadata. This code contains information about the image, like the GPS location and the contact information of the person who took the photo, according to TechTarget.
Secondly, there is the potential of what we share online now becoming a source of shame for our children in the near future. Of course parents think that everything their baby and toddlers do is cute, but it is difficult to predict how those images could be harmful to the child in the future, and Vallegos encourages parents to keep that in mind.
“Particularly in photos that can provoke feelings of shame,” she says. “Once it’s out there, it’s out there, and you can’t get it back.”
She went on to say there is significant potential for these images, from potty training to tantrums, to later be found and have impact on relationships, friendships, and even careers, simply because they exist and could create shame for the child.
Every Child has a Right to Consent
Beyond the obvious impact parents’ online activity has on their children, the choice to post pictures of a child without their knowledge or permission raises big questions about the topic of consent, according to Vallegos. She was quick to point out how current events, specifically multiple allegations of sexual harassment and sexual abuse, should only further motivate parents to take the topic of consent more seriously.
More specifically, parents should consider the message it sends when they teach their child about consent but then do not respect that child’s own right to consent by oversharing private information about them online.
“We have to talk about consent, and we have to talk about consent from an early age,” she says. “It sends a really mixed message to a kid that they don’t get to consent with their parents, but they’re expected to know what consent is.”
Are there laws that protect children on social media?
If a teenager can sue her parents for sharing her baby photos on social media, does that mean there are laws in place meant to protect children from their parents’ oversharing? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t so black and white.
For example, in France parents have been formally urged to take their child’s privacy seriously, suggesting they shouldn’t be sharing pictures of their kids online at all. They take privacy so seriously that any parent who is sued by their child for a breach of privacy could pay as much as €45,000 in fines or spend a year in prison, according to The Verge.
In the States, there is obviously a much more relaxed stance on the subject of privacy for minors, but that doesn’t necessarily mean sharing online is without legal risk, according to Robert Ellis Smith, an attorney and the publisher of The Privacy Journal.
“Generally, parents are able to give consent to use photographs for their children until they reach the age of consent,” he says, explaining that the age of consent varies from state to state but is typically between 16 and 18 years old. “Commercial exploitation of a photo or use of one showing highly embarrassing or sensitive features may override this rule of law.”
Relearning Social Media Use
Personally, as someone who has shared extensively online about my life as a mom and my kids’ childhoods, I’m beginning to feel some regret about my online habits. I’ve done the research, I’ve talked to the experts, and it has become pretty clear—posting about my kids online doesn’t benefit anyone but me.
At times, it feels like sharing photos of my kids is a right that I have as a parent, but now I find myself questioning that assumption. There seems to be a big difference between texting my mom a picture of one of her grandkids covered in food after a dinner of red sauce and pasta and posting that same image online for hundreds of followers and friends to see. I’m frustrated with myself that I haven’t seen that line until now, and I find myself wondering why I got into the habit in the first place.
“I think it could be that it’s just normal and accepted now,” says Vallejos, noting that although many assume it’s a symptom of narcissism, she believes that is rarely the case. “People don’t really think about the implications or the deeper issues.”
There is also the issue of competition and comparison, which I would love to believe I am immune to, but I know that is not true. It’s fairly typical for parents to feel a bit of competition with others, and children are a great source of validation, according to Vallejos.
For parents like me, who have spent so much of their lives on social media, it may be time to relearn how to use social media. I know that I have a lot to think about moving forward concerning what I post online.
There are two pieces of advice Vallejos offers to parents who feel they have already made mistakes when it comes to their kids’ privacy and social media. First, she suggests parents own the mistake, admit it to their kids, and decide not to get stuck in the shame. This is a good opportunity for parents to be transparent with their kids, admit their mistake, and explain that moving forward they will ask them for permission before posting anything about them online. Secondly, and more practically, she suggests doing the work of removing or hiding pictures and status updates that breach your child’s privacy.
As for me, I’ve got a lot of thinking to do. At first thought, it seems extreme to wipe my child’s identity from the internet. At the same time, I no longer feel like it was my choice to share their childhood, to write their story, to begin with. And so, I’ve started the work of slowly saving what I want to keep to a thumbdrive and deleting the rest. I can’t undo the oversharing I have done online, but I can do everything possible to lessen the impact it has on my child.