I do it. My friends with kids do it. Jessica Alba, Jamie Oliver and millions of parents around the world do it. But does that make sharing photos of our kids online a good idea? Sure, it comes naturally: snapping the gorgeous moments (on the bike! at the park! at the pool!) then clicking a button to instantly post to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and more. But aside from the pride, convenience and irresistible compulsion to document the moment, what does it mean for our little ones now and in the future?
“It’s permanent, global, publication,” says David Vaile, teacher at the Cyberspace Law and Policy Community within the University of New South Wales. “There’s this sentiment out there that sharing everything is great. But you have to remember that Facebook and Google are creating a profile of you and your children that exists from the cradle to the grave – and they profit from selling that information.”
Vaile’s point is clear: we don’t pay for it, because we are the product. And while it’s easy for such a sensitive topic to elicit fear, outrage or no-comment reticence from web-savvy parents (of the six mum and dad bloggers approached on this topic, only one would chat), it’s also empowering to examine the real risks and do something about them.
So what are the dangers? Between the realms of the benign (a legacy of unflattering baby photos) and the deeply tragic (in 2010 18-year-old Nona Belomesoff was lured to her death by a man who discovered her love of animals on Facebook), experts say privacy concerns come from two areas: corporates and strangers.
In her story for Slate magazine titled We Post Nothing About our Daughter Online, Amy Webb argues that posting pictures exposes kids to “facial recognition, Facebook profiling and corporate data mining”. Her article was shared over 100,000 times.
Questioned about the feature, Facebook’s Australian rep dismissed Webb’s suggestion as “not possible”, but did not dispute the social juggernaut’s business model reliance on ad revenue.
“In a sense targeted advertising is harmless,” says Jon Lawrence of the Electronic Frontier Agency. “But when you’re sharing images, you could also unwittingly be revealing demographic, social and political information about your family. It is important to think about the identity we might be inadvertently creating for our kids online before they can make choices themselves.”
On the stranger danger front, the thought of someone viewing pictures of your children with evil intentions is a Pandora’s box of pain for any parent. However, child psychologist Kimberley O’Brien from the Quirky Kid Clinic says that damage can come from where you least expect it. “Uploading pictures and constantly being attached to your phone can make children feel invisible,” she says. “I’ve seen the expression on kids’ faces change and sometimes you can have behavioural issues arise.”
For Paloma Rose Garcia, hairstylist and mum of four-year-old Teddy with a new bub to come, posting snaps of her son and expanding belly on Instagram isn’t something she’d planned. “I never thought I’d be the sort of mum to post photos, but a friend overseas started doing it, so I said I would too. You’re blessed to be pregnant and you want to share it.”
The salon owner says she posts every second day, but is careful about coming across over the top. “Some people post things with kids wearing expensive clothes. They’ll hashtag designer labels and be showy about money – I think that’s a bit naff.”
Sonia Stackhouse, blogger and mum of three says posting photos of her kids online has been a learning process. “Looking back, I was really naive and didn’t think too much about the pictures I was posting,” she says of launching Love, Life and Hiccups in 2011 to document her life with husband Carl and their sons. “Six months into it I became more aware of cybersafety and children’s rights. These days, my kids review and approve photos of them before they’re posted. There’s strictly no nudity, bath shots or private personal moments, and no school uniforms where the school name or street signs are visible.”
For some, the thought of strangers looking at their photos is too much – so they don’t post them. Ever. Take author/blogger Kerri Sackville, mum of three with over 7000 Twitter followers. “Just because I’ve chosen to life my life online, doesn’t mean my kids have to,” she says. “I don’t want to be exploiting my daughter’s cuteness for my own profile. It’s my job to protect my kids and that includes letting them grow into themselves rather than constructing an identity for them.”
Deleting accounts or going cold turkey on social media might seem the ultimate answer, but Lawrence of the Electronic Frontier Agency says the key is to be conscious when you set up your account. “On any social site, defaults may be set in a way that doesn’t necessarily suit you, so change them.”
Lawrence says he picked up the best tricks from twenty-something law students. “No one uses their real name. They’ll use a nickname or a pseudonym that’s only obvious to their friends. It’s also a good idea to set up a unique email address for your social media accounts. From Gmail, it’s easy to add accounts with extra characters or digits, which puts another step between people knowing your email and finding pictures of your children.”
The truth is, sharing pics is fun. There’s a boredom-defeating buzz that comes from likes and comments and beeps that fill dull moments of parenting with a sense that you’re doing it right, that you’re not alone. But we forget the magic of quiet. And as capturing every birthday, concert and gathering becomes the norm, it’s the non-documented moments that become special. Besides, who wants to be the parent obsessed with their kids?
“I’ve seen millions of kids’ photos online and, I have to say, none of them are as cute as mine,” Sackville says with a chuckle. “It’s only our kids who are special to us. When I think of that, it’s not such a sacrifice.”
Share and share and Like. Just do it safely. Here, the dos and don’ts of posting images of kids online.
Untag yourself and little ones from photos
Tagging feeds into facial recognition software active in Facebook’s Tag Suggest feature. If you get tagged by others, have a look then hit Remove Tag under the Options menu.
Become a storyteller
Blog under a pen name and give alternative names to the kids too. Be vague with factual information and have fun using your imagination.
You don’t really have 200 close friends, so segment them into different categories. Create groups of six to 10 and pop others on a restricted list so they just get the impression you don’t do much on the site.
This story first appeared in Sunday Life magazine on 2 November 2014.