How do you protect your children's privacy in the digital age?

by Nicki Roberts / 11 March, 2018

How many parents post images of their children to social media without a second thought? What will their kids think of that later in life? Photo / Getty Images

To share or not to share?  Whether or not to blog, tweet or post pictures of our children online – aka 'being a sharent' - is a contentious issue.  But it's no surprise that despite all the information out there on this topic, parents are still divided about the wisdom of posting images and details of their children online. 

The uncomfortable reality is that love it or hate it, we are stuck living in a digital age. These days kids may well have a digital footprint before the've cut their first tooth.  In fact, considering the current trend to post pictures of ultrasound images to announce a pregnancy, many end up with a digital footprint well before they're born.

There is no doubt that social media can be a wonderful thing.  A lot of love shines through the posts, as parents share moments with their children that made them laugh or feel proud.  But what effect will all this parental sharing have, as these children grow up?  Are we overdoing it and invading their privacy?

Although there are no relevant New Zealand statistics, a report by the UK’s communications watchdog 'Ofcom' reported that 56 percent of the parents it surveyed avoided 'sharenting' altogether.  Of these, 87 percent said their children’s lives should remain private while 38 percent said their offspring would not want them to upload the material. 

Some critics of 'sharenting' are particularly concerned with the safety risks.  That sweet photo of your child proudly wearing their 'big kid pants' after their first success on the potty is going to go down a treat with the grandparents but it’s also possible it could fall into the wrong hands and end up on some dark corner of the internet.  Quite apart from the safety risks, parents want to protect their child’s privacy. 

Aric Sigman, UK based psychologist and author of The Spoilt Generation believes we need to be cautious about over-sharing.  “Part of the way a child forms their identity involves having private information remain private.  This is being eroded by social media.  I think the idea of not differentiating between public and private is a very dangerous one”.

Why do some parents decide not to share their kids' photos?

Christchurch lawyer and mother of one Kate (who asked us to change her name to avoid offending 'sharenting' friends) has made the decision, along with her partner, to avoid sharing photos of their child altogether, until she is of an age to give consent. 

“The main reason is protecting her privacy and feeling quite strongly that she should be able to make the decision for herself [about] what kind of presence she is to have on social media.  We also want to protect her images from being used in a sinister way. 

Once upon a time baby photos were safely stored in albums, to be brought out to share with visiting friends and family. Now they're instantly available - and shareable. Photo / Getty Images

"We’ve taken the same amount of baby photos as any other parents so they are all there for her to upload if she wants to, at some point in the future.  We already share photos with our family but we have a file-share folder of photos, that we upload for them to look at, so we share in a different way.  I appreciate it has to be a balance because you can’t totally cut your child off from something when it’s so integrated into modern life.”

Wellington mother-of-three, Anna Lord is comfortable with the amount she shares online.  She estimates that, among her coffee group parent friends, more than half post images and details about their children's lives, but says most parents she meets are pretty internet-savvy.

“I think it would be hard to find a parent who didn’t know about checking their privacy settings and there are a lot like me, who are only sharing with a select group of friends and family.  I don’t post on Facebook that much but when I do post, my maternal protective instinct kicks in.  I want to keep my kids safe and protect their private lives, so I do think about what I put out there.  I’ve never posted any naked shots, ones that identify where we live or any unflattering, embarrassing images.  Though it’s always possible my kids might disagree with me in the future!”

Not all parents are as careful.  Just imagine if your toileting successes and disasters, major tantrums, toddler 'nudey bath runs', announcements that you were 'starting puberty' and worse, were all shared online. You don’t have to search far to find any of these real-life examples and it’s not hard to imagine the consequences, if classmates, partners or employers stumbled across this material, proudly posted years back by doting parents. 

How technology has made it so easy

Uploading photos is so simple and quick these days that 'sharents' sometimes post first and think later.  The problem with creating a digital footprint is that it’s difficult for an individual to exercise control over the information once it’s posted.  Even if you have second thoughts and delete it, someone else may already have taken ownership of the image with a screenshot.  Then it is open to manipulation. 

Those of us of a certain age can probably recall an embarrassing or compromising photo from our own childhood, before the computer chip made it possible to capture and share the image in two clicks of an Apple iPhone.  As we blush with shame at the thought of that image being made widely available, we should recognise that this is exactly what is happening today. 

 Google's offices in Dublin. In Europe the

Some predict a future backlash awaits, for breaches of privacy by 'sharents'.  In France, privacy laws are so strict that parents are being warned they could be sued or even face a prison term for oversharing images and details of their children's lives. 

In Europe, online privacy concerns mean the law has enshrined 'The Right to be Forgotten', giving everybody the right to be removed from the nexus of the Internet (though the practical realities of implementing this have yet to be determined). 

In New Zealand, the 'Harmful Digital Communications Act' is there to protect an individual’s privacy where posting has been unreasonable and caused harm.  If anyone posts harmful content they can be reported to Netsafe who, after a mediation process, go about having the content removed.  There is a civil process for further action but many privacy breaches are resolved with Netsafe before this is necessary. 

Could parents be sued by their kids for violating their privacy?

So surely in New Zealand there’s no risk of parents being sued by their children for posting some baby pics?  Nicole Moreham, Associate Professor at Victoria University School of Law and a privacy law expert, says theoretically children could sue here.  The legal protections exist so that a child could sue a parent if a reasonable expectation of privacy had been breached.  Moreham adds that it would be difficult to predict which way the courts would decide, as they would be walking a fine line between paternalism and recognizing that the child has an identity independent of the parent.  

Considering the difficulty of getting a privacy action at all, Moreham believes in a case like this, it would be surprising if a parent was successfully sued, but adds, “it’s not out of the realm of possibility.”

Increasingly, there is recognition that children have an interest in entering adulthood free to create their own digital footprint-free to make their own mistakes too.  There are risks with having an online profile. It's not nice stuff.  There is the possibility of identity fraud, bullying or blackmail.  Currently, there are recruitment firms which access social media, when considering job candidates.  In the future, a digital footprint could be used to decide on all sorts of things, from university admissions to mortgage approvals.  Anonymity is becoming quite a foreign concept.  

It sounds like something from a sci-fi movie but Facebook already has a facial recognition algorithm, with the ability to scan photos and automatically identify people based on existing images – even as they age.  No one can predict what a future internet will look like, or what rules and regulations will operate around social media, but it’s likely that by then, the notion of privacy will be quite different.  

With a large portion of the next generation having their baby photos on Facebook and becoming active social media users themselves, is it likely they’ll be concerned about their parents taking ownership of their digital footprint, in their early years? Should we be concerned for them? 

Some tips on how to post photos of your kids safely

Talking with Sean Lyons, Director of Technology at Netsafe is reassuring.  “We have the spectre of 'online' and we throw in a little of our own lack of knowledge as parents and we can very quickly get to worst case scenario thinking”. 

“You hear people talking about digital tattoos and saying that 'once it's up, it's out there for good'.  But the truth is for you and I, we are not Kardashians and our posts won't have been re-posted a million times.  Yes, there is metadata but who is really going to be interested in that?  It’s possible, but you can very quickly cross from practical reality into the Jason Bourne spy thriller stuff.  If you start throwing around the idea that there is nothing you can do to remove material, the obvious result is that people will do nothing [to go about removing harmful posts].”

Lyons himself has posted images of his kids on social media.  He takes reasonable care using privacy settings, won’t post live, makes sure images are not geo-locatable and avoids using names or any other pertinent details. As his children grew, he asked their consent before posting.  He points out that they were learning about posting responsibly themselves that way too.    

The notion of asking your child's consent before you post is gaining traction.  At what age this is appropriate, depends on the child’s maturity and language skills, but mother Katlyn Burbidge intends to ask her son’s consent from when he is 3 or 4.  Her question will be a simple, “Do you want other people to see this?”

Sharing online can help connect spread-out families and friends and create communities of support.  Facebook friends may find themselves sharing breastfeeding and infant sleeping tips.  A blog set up by an isolated mum with an autistic son for example, found herself connected with a wonderfully supportive community of parents also raising children with autism.  

Blogging parent Aimee Horton of 'Pass the gin' created her blog to provide a realistic picture of parenting, because she was tired of all the 'perfect parent' blogs out there.  She says that as her boys grow up, she would be prepared to take down childhood photos she'd shared, if they ask.  “If it’s a little bit embarrassing… well, they’re going to have to learn to laugh at themselves at some point”.  

In the future, the 'sharented children' might well need a good sense of humour and a thick skin too. 

As for the parents, trying to navigate through this social media –parenting territory, hopefully they will be forgiven for any errors of judgement made along the way. 

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