You’ve seen them all over the internet: funny photos of kids singing in the backseat, dancing in the kitchen, fighting with their siblings, or serving side eye so devastating that it becomes an entire meme-theme. Those photos and videos can be pretty amusing.
Elsewhere, millions of people post photos of their children immediately after they enter the world. Birth is just the beginning of what become endless streams of photo updates documenting baby’s first everything. It’s understandable that parents want to share baby, toddler, and kid photos on the internet with their friends and families. Parents are proud and excited, and have good reason to be.
But the subjects of these photos and memes are human beings who have their own desires and interests. Parents, caretakers, and other adults who spend time around children must take into account those desires and interests before choosing to put images of young people on the internet. New research shows it’s not just privacy advocates who warn about the unintended consequences of sharing images of children online—the kids have something to say about it, too.
Researchers at the Universities of Washington and Michigan asked 249 young people ages 10-17 about their views related to online sharing. The academics found that young people are very concerned about how their parents share information about them—including videos and photos—on the internet. As anyone who’s looked at Facebook recently could tell you, there’s a significant disconnect: the parents weren’t so concerned.
The New York Times reports:
Some children and teenagers question both past and present sharing. “I really don’t like it when my parents post pictures of me on their social media accounts, especially after finding out that some of my friends follow them,” said Maisy Hoffman, 14, an eighth grader who lives in Manhattan. “I worry more about my dad. He doesn’t always ask if he can post things, so I immediately turn away and ask if he’s going to post it. Or I’ll find out later because my friend saw something of me on his Instagram and I’ll have to ask him to take it down.”
Other parents can also present a problem for the child who prefers to control how she appears online. Wendy Bradford, a mother of three elementary-school aged children in Manhattan, said that when parent chaperones took pictures during a third-grade field trip to the zoo, her daughter “hid when she saw the phones because she didn’t want the pictures to be posted on Facebook with her in them.”
Isabella Aijo, 15, a high school sophomore in Natick, Mass., said, “I definitely know people who have parents who post things they wish weren’t out there. There was a girl in my eighth grade class whose mom opened a YouTube account for her in the fourth grade to show off her singing,” she wrote to me in an email. “Finally, on one of the last months of middle school, a peer played the song in class and almost the entire class laughed hysterically over it.”
What do young people want, when it comes to their parents and online sharing? They want what everyone wants: control over their own information. That’s what privacy is about—maintaining control over what kinds of information others can access about you, and deciding who can see which information.
One of the researchers who worked on the study, Stacey Steinberg, told the Times that parents aren’t trying to be hurtful when they share images of their kids. But they don’t often think about what impact that sharing will have on their child, tomorrow or decades from now.
“Parents often intrude on a child’s digital identity, not because they are malicious, but because they haven’t considered the potential reach and the longevity of the digital information that they’re sharing,” she said.
So how can you responsibly share information about your kid? For older children, like those surveyed for this study, straightforward consent is the key. Ask a teenager if you can share an image of them with a friend or with Facebook. But for younger kids, the answer may be that you just don’t do it. At the very least, save those cute pictures and stories about your kids for private means of communication.
In my family, we share photos and videos of the little ones through text message and email. Text is an especially easy way to stay in touch with the exciting early development years of toddlers who live far away, and this method doesn’t result in the transfer of sensitive information about our young family members to private corporations—or worse, to the entire world. If you want to keep your child’s likeness private, so that he or she can shape their own digital dossier, it’s not enough to refrain from posting pictures on Facebook and Twitter. You’ve also got to have a conversation with people who spend time with your children about your family’s choice, and ask them to respect it.
Your kids might not ‘get’ privacy now, and so don’t mind—or even get excited to see—you posting photos of them online. But kids don’t understand a lot of things about how the adult world works. It’s up to us, as grown-ups, to protect them from things that can hurt them. And like it or not, that includes sharing images of them at their cutest and funniest with the larger world. Someday they’ll probably thank you for it.