Is posting photos of our children online without their permission invading their privacy and causing them to fall prey to potential predators?
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 on the internet 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 Facebook is an effective and efficient platform to do this. And so, within a few weeks, photos of Elliott made it onto the internet.
“Digital natives” is the term commonly used to describe those who essentially grow up with computers and the internet as their third arm. It’s surprising to find anybody born after the year 2000 without an online presence, even if it’s simply a Facebook profile. 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 parents 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.”
Posting photos of your child online goes further than simple respect and permission, however. The dark side of the internet looms especially large when you become a parent. But before you need to tackle the reality of 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.”
To protect her family’s privacy, Mica Teh, a personal style blogger, has even gone so far as to request friends and family not to post photos of her sons (aged one and two) online. Any photos she posts have the boys’ faces obscured. “I had the chance to create my own online footprint and I want them to do the same,” she says.
Liz Dodd also avoids posting photos that show her sons’ faces online, even though she regularly blogs about her life with them. “I tend to do back or side views, or just their feet. I don't include their names—I refer to them as the Eldest and Youngest—and I don't blog about anything that could cause them embarrassment,” she says. “They are their own people and I have no right to ‘use’ them for my own or anyone else's entertainment. I want to keep them safe, I don't wish them to be recognisable on the street or have strangers aware of places we frequent or where they go to school.”
And if the recent Cambridge Analytics scandal teaches us anything, it’s that whatever we post online has the potential to be shared, whether we like it or not.
But are we simply too fearful of the unknown? There are some parents who think so. 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 says, “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.”
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.
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This article first appeared in Signs of the Times magazine.