As a proud mum, I am tempted to post every milestone and adorable moment in my daughter’s life on social media, but as a privacy advocate and a hacker, I pause to reflect on the potential consequences of my actions. It is crucial to realise that what we share online has far-reaching implications. Although social media has made connecting with friends and family easier, the platforms have grown so rapidly that we haven’t had time to wrap our heads around the privacy implications.
As technology flourishes, the opportunities and ease with which we can interact with the internet are multiplying at a staggering rate. Digital interactions are not limited to your smartphone – connected devices like interactive toys, wearables, baby monitors, schools that share live recordings, and assistants like Alexa and Google Home collect and store a lot of personal information about their users.
More than a third of British children have had images of themselves uploaded to social media by their parents and the average infant now acquires a digital footprint before their first tooth. With parents sharing pictures of ultrasound images, adults of tomorrow could potentially be traced all the way back to the womb. Who would bother to do that? We don’t know yet. This is uncharted territory: leagues different from the yellowing photograph albums of our own childhoods.
In the US there have been reports of teenagers going to apply for driving licenses, only to find someone has already got a license in their name and are then banned from obtaining their own licenses. Identity theft is likely to increase as we share more about children online. Even taking the precaution of using only a child’s first name online, it’s surprisingly easy to put together the pieces of the jigsaw.
Are you a ‘sharent’?
It is easy to share things online that you wouldn’t do face-to-face. Some of the most popular sites and apps are designed to enable people to share information, pictures, and videos. This is part of their popularity, but it can make it easy to share things we later regret.
For many children, their online life begins before they are born when excited parents-to-be post ultrasound images on social media. The internet can provide fantastic tools for sharing the special moments with friends and family. But before you share, give thought to exactly who can see photos and comments featuring your child, and how this online footprint might affect your child.
There are cons to sharenting but also pros. For example, parents of children with disabilities may be able to share their experiences with each other to exchange ideas on how best to support their children.
Think before you post…
When did you last check your privacy settings? On most social networks the default is that any other user can access your pictures, which may also appear in internet search results. Remember that anyone who can see a photo can also download or screenshot it and could go on to share it.
What else am I sharing?
You might be sharing more than what’s in the post. As default, many cameras, phones and apps tag posts and photos with ‘meta-data’ which can include location details, and other identifying information. This is potentially risky for any child but poses particular risks for vulnerable children such as those who have been fostered or adopted and could be sought online by members of their birth family. Photos of children in school uniforms poses similar risks as school crests and uniforms are unique and easily located.
Who will own this photo?
Under the terms and conditions of most social networks, when you share a photo, you license it for use by third parties. It could be used for commercial purposes, a point deliberately highlighted by the Danish company Koppie Koppie, which sold mugs featuring freely downloaded pictures of young children.
How might this impact my child’s digital footprint?
Every publicly accessible image or comment featuring your child contributes to the public image which can follow them into the future. Could their online childhood affect the way they feel about themselves, or you, or how others see them? Could it become an issue if they are seeking a job, or a relationship, or even election to public office?
Children v. Parents
It is difficult to quantify the effects of sharenting as they may not be immediate, both in terms of the harm done to young children and the permanence of data which can be exploited at a later date.
Children’s inherent right to privacy which are outlined and preserved in the Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), as well as in the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), ensure that ‘children merit specific protection’ due to their inability to comprehend the risks of data information sharing.
This often seems at odds with a parent’s rights to free expression. There is a vital boundary between public and private life which is frequently crossed by modern-day parents who have altered the landscape of the world for developing children. The ability to share information online has presented new opportunities to parents while simultaneously generating novel responsibilities. In sharing information about our children without consent, we become the narrators of their stories – leaving children vulnerable and unprotected. A child’s privacy is about their dignity and respect.
The problem with digital footprints is that it’s difficult for an individual to control that information once it’s out there. When it comes to our children, we’re making the decision to put information out on their behalf, and what seems appropriate now may not be appropriate in ten years’ time.
Psychologist Arin Sigman agrees that we should be concerned: “Part of the way a child forms their identity involved having private information about themselves that remains private. That is being eroded by social media. I think the idea of not differentiating between public and private is a very dangerous one.”
Follow Best Practices for Parents Online
Respect your child’s privacy: when you share your child’s photo or story, you are making a choice on their behalf without their consent. Build trust with your child by ensuring you are respectful and mindful of what you share about them.
Ask friends and family to limit posting photos of your child: if someone with a public profile is posting photos and/or tagging you, your own private account means nothing.
Monitor their digital footprint: companies are collecting data on your child from the second you post a photo of their ultrasound. This information can be used to compile a portfolio that can be used for marketing purposes.
Stop tagging your location: it may sound a bit alarmist, but you don’t need to alert people as to where they can find your child at that exact moment. If you need to document a location, wait till after you have left.
Check your privacy settings – do you still own the images? Who has access? Many of us give away more than we realise. Sites such as mypermissions.org display the third parties to whom you’ve granted access to your Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts. Adjustyourprivacy.com lets you change settings on all accounts and opt out of online tracking. Mypermissions.org can show you who has access to the information you share and who owns it.
Did you know you can screenshot anything or even a person’s picture and upload it into the pimeyes.com website and the website will look for the picture’s digital footprint? This is a good way to check whether the pictures you share online can be found anywhere else online.
- Are You Sharenting? Are You Making These Mistakes? - 05/04/2023