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Kids gone viral: perks, perils and social media policy

Emoticon. Webinar. Sexting. Digital technology is no stranger to wacky portmanteaus. A recent one is ‘sharenting’: the practice of parents or caregivers posting pictures of children to social media.

This once carefree activity, which Acting Children’s eSafety Commissioner Andree Wright describes as possibly akin to sharing a family photo album with strangers, is now subject to scrutiny. Child abuse fears, privacy concerns and queries about child-parent relationship boundaries have surfaced, thanks to our online fixations.

Stacey Steinberg, law professor at the University of Florida, related a disturbing story of child digital manipulation in her forthcoming article, “Sharenting: Children’s Privacy in the Age of Social Media”.

Of a ‘mummy blogger’ who posted pictures of her toddlers being toilet-trained, Steinberg wrote: “She later learned that strangers accessed the photos, downloaded them, altered them, and shared them on a website commonly used by pedophiles.”

Wright said she’s aware of children’s photos, or simply their identity, being manipulated by online predators, and that this is often the result of unwitting, proud parents posting snaps of their baby on Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat.

“New parents are really proud,” Wright said. “They post messages on social media that often include the name and date of birth of their child, often with the name of their pet, or the school they’ve enrolled their child in. Then grandma might comment on the post.

“These parents are providing a lot of information that could be used to answer bank security questions, for example.”

Photo: xiaxue.blogspot.com

A case of ‘sharenting’ gone extreme. Photo: xiaxue.blogspot.com

With social media only proliferating, Wright suggested it’s not a case of all or nothing. She merely advised adults to “think before you post.” In the case of parents, this means they should also consider setting their social media profiles to ‘private’, regardless of a child’s age.

“Teenagers can be sensitive,” she explained. “They might not want photos of themselves as naked toddlers in the bath, online. Some think of social media as their ‘brand’. They want to look cool. Sharing photos of them online can cause friction in the household.”

Steinberg cited research that supports Wright’s view: “Children who grow up with a sense of privacy, coupled with supportive and less controlling parents, fare better in life,” Steinberg maintained. “Studies report these children have a greater sense of overall wellbeing and report greater life satisfaction.”

While parents can choose to keep their kids’ lives private, preschools are often faced with a discretion dilemma; online photos of children both promote business and inform parents. Wright suggested that, to strike a balance between these aims and privacy, preschool staff should heed their centre’s social media policy. For example, many centres, like Cumberland Kindergarten in South Australia, require a parent’s consent to post a child’s photograph online, and prohibit naming of children.

Con Papadopoulos, a senior paediatrician at Sydney’s Royal North Shore and St George hospitals, holds a contrarian perspective on this issue. He thinks schools are overly wary of photo-sharing, given its risks haven’t been measured. “Families are upset about this,” he offered. “Taking photos of groups of children, for instance, at a school dance, used to be culturally acceptable. Now, you can’t photograph a child if other children are in the photo.

“This kind of defensive parenting only serves to increase paranoia.”

Fearful or not, Wright proposed that parents and educators apply her motto, ‘think before you post’. She further noted adults should check who owns the copyright to photos once they’re uploaded to social media pages.

Steinberg, on the other hand, offered more philosophical, ethics-based guidance. “By age 4, children have an awareness of their sense of self,” she penned. “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.”

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