Babies, like cats, are everywhere on the web.
In the United States, the vast majority of 2-year-olds — more than 90 percent of them, according to a 2010 survey — already have an online presence. More than 80 percent of babies younger than that are already on social media, too.
Many children make their internet debut as grainy gray blobs on Facebook-posted ultrasound images before they’re even born.
Sometime past toddlerhood, these kids might become aware that their online identities are already being shaped in some depth, and usually by their parents. Given the searchable, shareable, long-lasting nature of what’s published on the web, this dual role of parent and publisher raises a host of questions about privacy, consent, and the parent-child relationship more broadly.
As a result, researchers, pediatricians, and other children’s advocates are in the early stages of designing a public-health campaign to draw attention to what they say is an inherent conflict between a parent’s freedom to publish and a child’s right to privacy.
“It’s very rare that parents are sharing maliciously, but they haven’t considered the potential reach or longevity of what is happening with the information they’re posting,” says Stacey Steinberg, a law professor at the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law and the associate director of the school’s Center on Children and Families.
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It’s typical for adults to mention a child’s name and birthdate in birth announcements and other posts on sites like Facebook and Instagram, for instance, which puts kids at risk of identity theft and digital kidnapping — when someone lifts images of another person’s kids and portrays them as their own. Some parents publish real-time information about their children’s whereabouts, potentially risking their safety. And well-meaning adults readily go online to share photos of their kids in a variety of intimate settings.
In Steinberg’s new paper, “Sharenting: Children’s Privacy in the Age of Social Media,” set to be published in the Emory Law Journal in the spring of 2017, she writes of a blogger who posted photos of her young twins while they were potty training. “She later learned that strangers accessed the photos, downloaded them, altered them, and shared them on a website commonly used by pedophiles,” Steinberg wrote. “This mother warns other parents not to post pictures of children in any state of undress, to use Google’s search features to find any images shared online, and to reconsider their interest in mommy blogging.”
“I’m the one responsible,” the woman wrote in a 2013 blog post about the incident, warning her readers to be careful about what they publish online. “I took the picture and shared it. There’s nobody to blame but me.”
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But even posting baby photos to a private Facebook group or protected Instagram account is not without risk. “With private groups, there is this false sense that everybody in the group knows each other and has the same interests in mind,” Steinberg told me.
Parents and caregivers don’t just have to trust that the people they choose to share with won’t download, redistribute, or otherwise misuse images — they also have to trust that the people who can access shared baby photos have their own robust privacy settings, and that they control who else can use their social media accounts, and so on. Many parents believe privacy settings are enough of a safety net, Steinberg wrote, so “they use little discretion sharing with their chosen audience. In reality, even these posts can reach a large audience.”
The implications of all this sharing extend far beyond questions of security, and get at the heart of a new paradigm in parenting. Caregivers are no longer merely gatekeepers for their children but also, in many cases, potentially the distributors of information about their children to mass audiences. There are clear benefits to all this sharing — for families and friends who are geographically dispersed, and for parents who share details about their children’s lives to seek advice from trusted friends, for example — but this new model can also pose a threat to a child’s sense of autonomy over her developing identity.
“Caregivers are no longer merely gatekeepers for their children but also, in many cases, potentially the distributors of information about their children to mass audiences.”
Consider, for instance, a Christmas card that ends up going viral online—a now-routine seasonal phenomenon. Last year, controversy erupted over a Louisiana family’s photo, which featured a mother and two girls with tape placed over their mouths, a small boy making a thumbs-up gesture, and a father holding a sign that said “peace on Earth.” In the ensuing backlash, critics decried the photo as sexist. In the backlash to the backlash, those critics were called killjoys. Besides, the second argument went, people have a right to express seasons greetings in whatever manner they choose.
Regardless of where you stand on the issue, the episode helps illustrate one of the perils of sharenting: There are three children in the photo, none of whom can opt out of the digital footprint their family has now established for them. Is that fair to the kids?
Parents make value-based choices for their children all the time. A toddler may want to opt out of wearing any clothing whatsoever to the playground, but the grown-ups of the house make the kid put on pants and a T-shirt anyway.
Parents often tell their kids what to believe about God, and which football team to root for. Even infants are outfitted in tiny rompers that declare partisan political affiliations. There is no “bright line,” Steinberg says, that dictates when and how it’s appropriate for parents to express themselves through their children. That’s part of why, especially in the United States, there’s enormous cultural deference to parents to do what they believe is right. Yet when identity-shaping decisions — made by parents, then distributed online in ways that ultimately remove parental control — are digitally preserved for years or longer, such decisions potentially get in the way of a child’s self-actualization.
“It might be only natural for parents to want a child to embrace their values and to believe their beliefs,” wrote the Georgetown Law professor Jeffrey Shulman in a 2010 paper, “but the expressive liberty of parents becomes despotic when the child is given no real opportunity to embrace other values and to believe other beliefs.”
Similarly, Steinberg writes:
Child advocates in both the medical and behavioral arenas recognize that childhood well-being is not limited to traditional notions of health. Indeed, children who grow up with a sense of privacy, coupled with supportive and less controlling parents, fare better in life. Studies report these children have a greater sense of overall well-being and report greater life satisfaction than children who enter adulthood having experienced less autonomy in childhood. Children must be able to form their own identity and create their own sense of both private and public self to thrive as young people and eventually as adults.
Despite the argument that social media has ushered in a post-privacy world in which young people’s concepts of — and expectations for — privacy will be all but nonexistent, there’s evidence that digital natives still care about privacy online. “We are seeing a move towards more private behavior online, even among children,” wrote the authors of a paper presented last year at the 24th International World Wide Web Conference. “Applications such as Snapchat, which circumvent the permanence of most digital communications, are very popular among adolescents and teens, since they allow users to share intimate moments without the drama or long-term consequences of persistent messaging applications.”
Children’s advocates argue that kids have a moral right to control their own digital footprint, and perhaps even a legal right. Steinberg suggests that so-called “right to be forgotten” laws — like ones in the European Union and in Argentina that allow an individual to request personal information be scrubbed from search-engine results — could be passed to protect minors in the United States. The country’s strong free-press protections make this a complicated (and ultimately unlikely) prospect, however.
Steinberg is also asking the American Academy of Pediatrics to develop best practices for parents with regard to online sharing. Standard guidelines might include giving children “veto power” over what’s published online, setting up Google alerts for children’s names, and reading — actually reading, not just agreeing to—the privacy policies of websites before publishing photos there.
Giving children the right to say “no, it’s not okay for you to post that” —regarding images and quotes, as well as descriptions of their accomplishments and challenges — is something Steinberg says she feels especially strongly about. “By age four, children have an awareness of their sense of self,” she writes. “At this young age, they are able to build friendships, have the ability to reason, and begin to compare themselves with others. Parents who post regularly can talk about the internet with their children and should ask young children if they want friends and family to know about the subject matter being shared.”
Children benefit from being “heard and understood,” she says, but it seems likely that such conversations would also encourage children to think critically about how online sharing might affect them. Developing this line of thinking from an early age prepares children to manage their own behaviors online as they grow — and it’s a more nuanced way of thinking about online publishing than teaching kids to never share anything whatsoever. Steinberg underscored repeatedly — in her paper and in my conversation with her—that she doesn’t want to discourage parents from posting photos and stories about their kids online.
Someone might blog about a child’s medical condition as a way to seek or offer support, or to raise crucial funds for health care. Sharing baby photos on Facebook is a way to keep far-flung families feeling close. “I feel so strongly in not silencing parents voices,” she told me. “There are so many benefits to sharing information ... and very valid reasons to share. That’s why this is so complex.”
But the benefits of sharing still don’t outweigh the potential harm that can be caused. “The reality is that the data shared by parents could be revealed by Google search algorithms for years to come,” Steinberg told me. “And we don’t know what our children’s goals might be when they get older.”
“This first generation of children who grew up on social media are coming of age, and they’re just now entering adulthood and the job market,” she added. “It would be wise of us to invite them to the table as children’s rights advocates as we talk about the best way to move forward.”
The bottom line, Steinberg says: “Don’t share something online that you wouldn’t be okay sharing publicly.”
This story originally appeared on TheAtlantic.com.