As a mother of three, a photographer and a children’s rights lawyer, my roles as memory keeper and memory revealer are constantly in flux.
I joined Facebook in 2008 when my first child was a year old. His life, along with the lives of my other two children, have since been the highlight reels of my newsfeed, which in the beginning contained more milestones than I was recording in their baby books. A few years ago, I began to question whether I was unwittingly putting my children’s privacy in jeopardy and whether their life stories were really mine to tell. I reversed course and changed how I share online.
Parents of children under the age of 18 are the first to raise kids entirely alongside our newsfeeds. As social media comes of age, will we regret all the information we revealed about our families during its early years?
A Conflict of Interest
Studying children’s privacy on social media fed both my personal conflicts and my professional passions, so six years ago, I delved deep into the work of studying the intersection of a child’s right to privacy and a parent’s right to share.
What I quickly learned was that the law does not give us much guidance when it comes to how we use social media as families. Societal norms encourage us to use restraint before publicly sharing personal information about our friends and family. But nothing stops us as parents from sharing our child’s stories with the virtual world.
While there are laws that protect American children’s privacy in certain contexts — such as HIPAA for health care, FERPA for education and COPPA for the online privacy of children under 13 — they do not have a right to privacy “from their parents,” except in the most limited of circumstances.
Most other countries guarantee a child the right to privacy through an international agreement called the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The United States signed the agreement, but it is the only United Nations member country not to have ratified it, which means it is not law or formal policy here. Additionally, doctrines like the Right to Be Forgotten might offer children in the European Union remedies for their parents’ oversharing once they come of age.
In addition to the risk that children will be mortified by what their parents have posted about them, there is the chance that peers might come across certain posts and use them as fodder for bullying. And there are possible risks from strangers as well. For example, one study by Barclays suggested that by the year 2030, parental sharing of their children’s data will result in over seven million incidents of identity fraud.
We know that data collectors can collect our personal information from social media posts. When we share online, these same collectors may be building digital dossiers on our children.
Sharing online could also lead to image theft by pedophiles. Bath and beach pictures could be prime targets, but other images could be wrongly appropriated as well. A pedophile could potentially take any image of a child, use computer technology to morph it with a separate nude or sexual image of an adult, and share it as child pornography. While it is difficult to know with any confidence the frequency of such occurrences, the impact can be devastating, said Mary Anne Franks, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law and an adviser on online privacy to legislators and the technology industry.
Why Parents Share
I have seen firsthand the power that sharing on social media has on my life and on the lives of my children and community. I have advocated on behalf of issues that are important to my family, sharing our own experiences facing anti-Semitism in the hopes of changing school curriculum, for example. I’ve photographed families whose lives have been touched by childhood cancer who shared their children’s story alongside my pictures to help fund medical research and the costs associated with treatment, raise awareness of rare conditions, and create supportive communities that allow children to feel connected to others during long hospital stays.
In our current era of social distancing, social media has become a primary way to stay in touch. I have watched as friends shared stories of medical challenges, employment discrimination and racial injustice, and I have learned from the power of their narratives. While I am still working on remembering to put the phone down more frequently, I can also appreciate the appeal of having a community at my fingertips.
When we share openly, others similarly situated gain support and knowledge. As a result, we deeply connect with one another and recognize the rich diversity in society.
Social media might also offer tools to help us become better parents. A Pew Research study out last week reported that 82 percent of parents who use social media post about their children online. Many of these parents turn to the internet and social media to get advice about screen time, with “40 percent of parents who use the internet getting advice from parenting websites or blogs, 29 percent of parents who use social media turning to social media sites and 19 percent of internet-using parents getting information from online message boards.”
When I started this work, I expected to walk away from the research never wanting to share again. That did not happen — I’m still on Facebook. I found that despite its drawbacks, social media has added valuable connections to my life.
What has changed for me is that the conversations around sharing my story, and sharing my children’s stories, have become more nuanced. Getting to know the families I met through my photography project constantly reminded me of the power of vulnerability. Working as a child abuse prosecutor reminded me of the dangers lurking past a parent’s newsfeed. Being the parent of a growing teen reminded me that if I do not teach my children to exercise restraint online, they will have a harder time learning how to respect others’ privacy in digital spaces.
Finding a Balance
Most parents do not overshare online because they are malicious; they simply have not fully considered the significance of their child’s digital footprint. Well-informed parents are best suited to making sharing decisions on behalf of their children. There are ways we can share smarter on social media and do a better job of protecting our children’s privacy in a no-privacy world.
We can be mindful of the audience with which we share and appreciate how data brokers might try to take advantage of our drive for connection. We can also use social media as a tool to talk to our kids about the importance of consent and about the risks we all face by oversharing online.
We can ask our kids before sharing their pictures with friends and family on social media. Even young kids benefit from being heard and understood. At the same time, parents benefit from connecting with others online. Balancing these competing interests can be challenging.
Should parents share videos of their child having a tantrum in a closed Facebook group with the hopes of gaining support from other parents of young children? What about a teenager doing a goofy dance in the living room that she thought was private but her mom thinks is adorable to share? Parents need to think deeply about their children’s online privacy and safety needs, because until they get older, we are the ones responsible for protecting their digital footprints.
When our kids see us step out of the moment and into our newsfeeds to share a picture, instead of waiting until later, they take note. We need to think about how we want to model online sharing, so that our kids can follow our example when they are old enough to start using Instagram, TikTok or whatever the next popular platform may be.
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