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Cyber safety: Keeping your children safe from predators

By Melody Tan 8 min read
Thursday, March 04, 2021

We talk to child safety experts about the six things about our children we should never share online.

Should my child’s photos be displayed on Facebook—even if I were to amp up my privacy settings? Before Elliott, my son, was born, I was adamant that all online footprints of him would be non-existent, or at most, kept to a minimum. I knew anything I posted in the online world featuring Elliott would stay there forever, and I didn’t want him living with images he never had the opportunity to approve.

Of course, I failed to take into account just how proud Elliott’s father or grandmother would be, or maybe I wasn’t expecting such a charmingly adorable baby (an objective evaluation, of course!). Being a migrant, I had also overlooked the fact friends and family back home would want regular pictorial updates of the little man and social networking sites are an effective and efficient platform to do this. And so, within a few weeks, photos of Elliott became online content.

Just how do you protect your children's online privacy and keep them safe from predators? Is it simply about avoiding all online activity? I talk to child safety experts about the six things about our children we should never share online, and the different views parents have when it comes to internet safety.

Online safety starts with the parents

Cyber safety: photos of children

“We are pleased to announce the arrival of baby John Alan Smith on September 26, 2019 at 4.02am. Mum is doing fine and is hoping to leave Westmead Children’s Hospital tomorrow.”

As Colin Anson, a cyber security expert with Pixevety points out, in two sentences, the full name, date of birth and place of birth of this child are readily available online. A new baby is always exciting news, but the future cost of sharing these identifying details—details that your child can’t change—is a loss of privacy. And once lost, privacy is incredibly hard to regain.

“Digital natives” is the term commonly used to describe young people today—those who essentially grow up with digital devices and the internet as their third arm. But should that extend to our young children, who aren’t at an age where they can make any decisions for themselves?

This issue was real for an 18-year-old Austrian girl, who in 2016 sued her parents for posting embarrassing photographs of her as a child on Facebook. According to Austrian media, some 500 photos—including those of her having her nappy changed, undergoing potty training and lying naked in her cot—have been shared with 700 of her parents’ friends on Facebook. Despite pleas from the teenager to delete the photos, her parents have refused. The father is understood to be arguing that since he took the pictures, he has the right to publish them.

However, as Ruth Dearing, author of How to Keep Your Children Safe Online, says, “Even if children may not be able to legally give permission for their pictures to be shared online, parents have a moral duty to ask if their children are OK with their images being shared.”

While it can be argued the main issue at play in the Austrian case is one of family relationships (or lack thereof), privacy and respect also need to be taken into consideration. It’s a principle Dympna Kennedy, founder of Creating Balance—an organisation that teaches positive communication between carers and children—tries to encourage.

“Imagine the moments captured in the following photos: The smile that shows just one tooth; puree food lingering on the chin after having been spoon-fed; in a deep sleep with the mouth slightly open, tongue protruding; fallen, having just taken a few steps . . .

“What if these photos are not of your seven-month-old baby, but of you at 70 years old? Would you allow your child to post them on social media, or would you be glad that consent laws were put in place to protect your privacy, to be sensitive to you at your weakest and most vulnerable stage of life?

“A child will learn respect for others in life by being shown respect by those entrusted to care and protect them when they were young.”

Dympna echoes age-old biblical advice: “He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect.”

Problems that arise from parents sharing photos and details of their kids online

Images and identifying details can be used for numerous activities that put your child at risk. They include:

  • paedophilia
  • stalking
  • cyberbullying
  • identity theft
  • kidnapping

According to Colin, with emerging technology such as facial recognition, the personal information taken from a single photo is potentially unlimited.

"Most importantly, never tag a child’s image with any personal information," he says.

Cyber safety expert: Don’t share these 6 details about your child

Before you need to tackle the reality of identity theft, cyberbullying and pornography, the dangers of online sexual predators are present the second your child’s photo goes online.

It’s the reason why Susannah Birch, a social media consultant, restricts the audience of her children’s photos on Facebook and advises other parents never to share photos of their children publicly online. The seemingly innocuous photos you post can be used—without permission—in unflattering memes, for scams and, far worse, on sexual role-play accounts or by paedophile sites.

“Just because you haven’t seen your child’s photo used inappropriately, doesn’t mean it hasn’t been,” says Susannah. “Just because a child is dressed modestly doesn’t prevent it either; many paedophiles are more attracted to innocent child photos, not to mention they’re easier and safer to share with each other online.”

Keeping your children safe online goes beyond not sharing the obvious, such as their phone number or address. Colin points out six other seemingly innocuous details we shouldn't be sharing about our children. 

1. Name

A name on its own doesn’t pose a great risk, but it can be used for stalking and grooming behaviour and contribute to identity theft. Don’t share full names and definitely avoid revealing their middle name on social media. If you’re posting about your children, consider using de-identifying details like “my two-year-old”, “Miss 2”, their initial or a nickname.

2. Date of birth

Again, birth announcements are a great source of privacy breaches and future identity theft, as are parental posts or photos about their birthday, such as, “Exactly five years ago today, my son came into the world.”

Don’t feel bad about being vague. You can obscure the exact date by using relative terms like “Earlier this month we welcomed our bundle of joy!”

3. Location

Location can be revealed in different ways. When you share photos, details such as landmarks in your neighbourhood can tell strangers the suburb you live in, which increases stalking and kidnapping risks. Additionally, posted pictures, especially those taken on smartphones, often contain metadata that records the time, date and GPS coordinates of where the photo was taken. Even though you cannot see this information on the photo, it is possible for people to access it by downloading the image.

Share photos where the location is less recognisable. If possible, scrub the metadata. You can download tools that help you wipe the data or you can develop a habit of taking a screenshot of the image and sharing the screenshot instead, as it won’t contain the metadata. This also makes the image low-resolution, reducing the ability of someone tampering with it.

Do not tag the location of the photograph if it is significant to your everyday life, such as the local playground.

4. School

Avoid sharing photos of your child in uniform or on school grounds that are recognisable. It’s also a good idea to share such information only with the people you know, not with all of your Facebook friends.

You may also choose to edit the photo by blurring out details like the school emblem. Do not tag the location of the school.

If you upload photos on social media of school events, be aware of the other school students in the background. Others may not want to be seen on social media.

Read: Three questions about photo consent you need to ask your kid's childcare or school

5. Hobbies and interests

We love it when our kids get involved in different activities such as weekend sports, and we’ll happily take photos of them kicking a goal. Unfortunately, it may also make them a stalking or grooming target, as it gives strangers a way to approach them.

Avoid sharing images of your child and their activities publicly. You should also talk to other organisations that might photograph your child and inadvertently share this information—such as school or sports clubs looking to include your child on their websites or social media channels. Start a conversation with the educators or organisers to ensure they understand any concerns you may have so they seek consent.

6. Their appearance

According to the Australian Office of the eSafety Commissioner, half of all images on paedophile image-sharing sites originate from social media sites and blogs. Even the most innocent snaps—yes, even baby photos—can be transformed into something sinister in the wrong hands.

Furthermore, emerging technology such as facial recognition also has unknown future implications. Facebook and other global media companies like Google, IBM, Yahoo and YouTube create global face template pools allowing the same facial recognition technology to be used across all accounts. While this makes automated identification fast and easy, it also enables greater global surveillance and exploitation by organisations building global face databases for commercial purposes.

Be careful about which images you share. Avoid full-face shots and consider whether certain attire (for example, swimwear) or poses may constitute inappropriate content. Consider editing the photo by blurring faces or use the screenshot trick to make the image low-resolution. Talk to people who may be interested in photographing your child, for example, your family and friends, their friends’ parents, schools, clubs and organisations, and make your wishes known.

Why some parents think you may be overreacting

Cyber safety: sharing selfies

When Michelle Tupy went on a road trip from Peru to Canada with her husband and two children last year, she documented their travels—complete with photos—on her website.

“My kids (aged six and 12) are always asking me to post photos online, so as long as I have their permission, then I am not overly concerned about it,” she says. “While we live in a world full of unsavoury characters, I refuse to let fear stop me from sharing their photos.”

It’s a point of view echoed by Prosper Taruvinga, who created a Facebook page for his daughter, Kaliyah, three years ago when she was born. He sees it as an online scrapbook of sorts, documenting precious memories of his daughter.

When asked if he was concerned Kaliyah’s images may be used for nefarious activities, he replies, “You get what you put out. We mean well in life and for those around us. People who may do [illegal] stuff, how far can they go if we do not give them our energy and time? People putting their addresses and their credit card [details online are] far worse than just an innocent photograph. We are not oblivious to [the bad stuff on the internet], but it does not stop us from celebrating the growth of our daughter.”

Alex Bogatyrev has very different reasons for not only posting photos of his daughter online, but uploading videos as well. His daughter, Alexandra Kiroi, represents Australia in rhythmic gymnastics, and a social media profile is critical for her to obtain sponsorships. He is aware of the possible misuse of his daughter’s images by those with malicious intent, but has taken steps to prevent it.

“Google Alerts help me monitor posts that pop up with my daughter's name,” he says. “As far as graphic content goes, it is really hard to control, but generally I look through her followers’ profiles to block the odd ones.”

Cyber safety is all about respect first

Sharing your own child’s photo online is obviously a very personal decision and depends very much on your reasons. One common thread that seems to exist, regardless on where you stand on the debate, is respect—for yourself, for your family and, most importantly, for your child.

As the Bible advises, “Do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.”

But remember, no matter what we decide when it comes to our child’s digital footprint, we should never make that decision for another parent. So when it comes to posting a photo of another child, always seek permission from the parents first. They (or me at least) will thank you for it.

Melody Tan is project manager of the Mums At The Table multimedia initiative. She lives in Sydney with her husband and their preschooler son.