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Posting a child’s life for the world to see is a privacy issue

Children consistently delight and surprise us, and make us hoot with laughter. It’s only natural to want to share these moments with friends and family. But the trend of posting information about our young…

Young children cannot consent to personal information being shared online, or understand the possible implications. Lotus Carroll

Children consistently delight and surprise us, and make us hoot with laughter. It’s only natural to want to share these moments with friends and family. But the trend of posting information about our young children on social media sites raises an important issue: don’t children deserve some privacy?

Traditionally, people may have told funny or icky anecdotes about their children to their nearest and dearest when they saw them, or wheeled out embarrassing photos of their naked children at 21st birthday parties.

But social media sites provide the opportunity to share this information far more widely. Parents can place information permanently online where it may come back to haunt them, or their children.

Many parents post photos and videos online of their young children during their most cute, funny, or embarrassing moments. Daily chronicles of the most personal kind are appearing on social media sites around the world. These posts include the most intimate anecdotes about anything from poo and vomit to funny or misguided comments children have made.

This can begin from the child’s earliest moments – from ultrasound images to photos of newborn babies still naked and covered in blood. One parent even posted an image of a toddler on the toilet with his pants around his ankles, peering down with trepidation.

While it’s natural for people to want to share information about their children’s funniest moments, it raises important issues about children’s privacy. A discussion of these issues has been strangely absent and as the trend intensifies, it is a discussion we need to have.

The issue is particularly salient in the context of younger children who are not old enough to speak for themselves. They cannot consent to the information being shared, or understand the possible implications.

Are children not owed some privacy as they learn to navigate the world? Can they not expect their most intimate moments, when they are at their most vulnerable or raw, to be shared only amongst those closest to them?

Should they not have the choice, when they are old enough to exercise it, about which of the moments catalogued by their loved ones are made more public?

In addition to expecting their privacy as children to be protected, there’s also the issue of their privacy as future adults. What about when the child grows up? If the information is available on social media when the child reaches adolescence and adulthood, there’s a reserve of fodder for potential bullies at school, for potential employers, and for the media if they become prominent.

If a child whose every intimate moment has been photographed, described and posted online develops a public profile, or enters political office, her parents will have created the ultimate “dirt file”.

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Research with children consistently shows that being listened to, having their views taken seriously, being given choices about decisions that affect them, and being treated respectfully are essential to their well-being. This is vital for their sense of self and their relationships with the adults around them.

Some progress has been made in responding to children’s wishes. In Australia, growing recognition of children’s rights has meant they are increasingly treated as autonomous agents possessing rights.

In 2013, Australia’s first National Children’s Commissioner was appointed at the Australian Human Rights Commission to ensure that children’s voices are heard when “decisions are made about the issues that affect their lives”. Today, the commission launches its Children’s Rights Report, the first of its kind in Australia.

Policy and research concerning children now aim to be more participatory and inclusive of children’s views. Children are increasingly treated as though their “expertise” in their own well-being is a resource that can be tapped when developing policies and services to meet their needs.

The trend towards posting intimate images, videos and information about children online on a large scale is antithetical to all of this progress.

As social media becomes a more pervasive part of our life, we need to start talking about the implications of this trend, and what our children might think about it now and in the future.

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20 Comments sorted by

  1. Suzy Gneist

    Multiple: self-employed, employed, student, mother, volunteer, Free-flyer

    Thanks for raising this issue.

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  2. Ehsan Gharaie

    Lecturer in Construction Project Management at RMIT University

    Finally someone said something about this. Thanks Myra. What is becoming an acceptable practice in photo sharing is a breach of children's privacy. However, they have no voice in this and therefore the debate never has been conceived.

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  3. George Michaelson

    Person

    Back in the 90s when I was in a collaborative research project on 'X500 directory services' (this became superseded by what is now LDAP, which pretty much runs everywhere microsoft does) I posted a directory entry for my son who was 18 months old, and for 'profession:' in the directory entry I put 'trainee potty attendant'

    The data lived online worldwide, for about the next 15 years. It did finally go offline but it was a salutary lesson in the longevity of data, how easily it can become cached and superseded, and how difficult it is to regain control of it.

    I think I've been forgiven for what seemed an innocent joke at the time...

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  4. Lucy Westerman

    logged in via Facebook

    Important & timely (if not overdue!) commentary on an issue that needs more parents to consider.

    Children are being taught at school not to share photos, their identity, personal details, etc online, and be more cautious about cyber-stranger danger, etc, yet some parents don't seem to spare a thought for the children they themselves share so much about, despite caring so deeply for them.

    I was guilty of over-sharing when my children were younger, my intentions were never to cause harm or…

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  5. Kate Davis

    Lecturer

    This is an important conversation, and I am very glad it's happening.

    I am an Information Studies researcher, currently finishing my doctoral research in which I am exploring the information experience of new mothers in social media. My research involved interviewing mothers about their use of social media and a period of observation, in which I followed them across a variety of social networks to gain a deeper understanding of their practices. My study involved two interviews with each participant…

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    1. Gayle Dallaston

      logged in via email @aspergicmoments.com.au

      In reply to Kate Davis

      Kate Davis: "However, there is research (not just mine!) that suggests social media can improve the experience of mothering, in particular by helping to manage isolation. "

      I think this is very true and being able to reach out across geographic and physical constraints is one of the great things about the internet. It can work really well with forums where people use nicknames and only divulge their real identities to others in private if, and when, they choose.

      I have used both listservs and online forums. When using my real name I am very cautious about what I say about other people.

      IMO, social media with its insistence on revealing as much as possible about their users is the wrong place to go looking for support and friendship. It worries me to see support and social groups moving to social media instead of keeping their own platforms.

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  6. Kate Davis

    Lecturer

    Another thought: You make the point that women post ultrasound photos. This is an interesting point which speaks to the complexity of this issue. At what point does a child's right to privacy come into play?

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    1. Lynne Newington
      Lynne Newington is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Researcher

      In reply to Kate Davis

      I also believe the dignity of a child in utero can compromised in the way an expectant mother dresses...as old hat as that may sound....

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  7. Casey Schapel

    Social Worker

    Great article and some great responses.
    I think in particular - Lucy's comments on our education system attempting to educate young people about privacy and security of the online world which sits in direct contrast to what some mothers (and fathers, aunties/uncles, grandparents!) etc., post online.

    But I also am interested in Kate's comments about differentiating posts (mothers experience versus documenting childs life). Though many posts could be argued to fit into both catergories equally.

    Perhaps the new-old rule of not posting things about others (your children included) that you wouldn't want posted about yourself should be something we hold in the back of our minds.

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    1. Kate Davis

      Lecturer

      In reply to Casey Schapel

      You're absolutely right - many posts do fall into the same category, but it is possible to focus on your own experience. A couple of examples... A mother might blog about how she feels about returning to work and the experience of transitioning back into the workplace. Or she might blog about her experience of post natal depression. Or perhaps she might blog about her feelings related to her child's first day at school. All of these things can be discussed in a way that focuses on the mother, not the chid.

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    2. Myra Hamilton

      Research Fellow in Social Policy at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Kate Davis

      Kate Davis,
      Thanks for sharing these reflections on your research findings. The ‘grey area’ you describe that parents must negotiate between sharing their own experiences and sharing information about their child is a very useful way of framing a discussion about this trend.

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    3. Tom Fisher

      Editor and Proofreader

      In reply to Casey Schapel

      Why, Casey, do "young people" need to be "educated" about "privacy and security in the online world", and who is to do the "educating", by whose criteria?

      The entire generation of under 25s has grown up simply not knowing a world without computers and the Internet. They took to it intuitively, like ducks to water, while apart from those of us who built the thing to most adults is is too often a strange new space full of unimaginable terrors.

      We know the history of it. Early in the piece parents…

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    4. Casey Schapel

      Social Worker

      In reply to Tom Fisher

      Wow. So first of all, if you read my first line you'll note that I wrote that I found someone else's comments on the education system as attempting to do this educating, interesting. Not that I think that young people need to be more educated about the internet than any other risk attached to living. As a Gen Y'er myself and someone who works with the under 25 set, I'm well aware of the technological efficiency of youth.

      But if you would like to talk about Netiquette - I think you'll find that a 14 paragraph response posted by an 'editor and proofreader' that ignores everything in the original comment that it is responding to, comes off as very odd online manners.

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  8. Tom Fisher

    Editor and Proofreader

    What is most noticeable here, as it is in most such "issues" being raised, is a whole lot of adults deciding for themselves what children's rights are without bothering to ask them; whether they want privacy or indeed publicity, or better whether children care one way or another.

    I would never even dream of saying to anyone, at any time, that I "overshared" photos of our children. What silliness, and what further invasion of their privacy by telling even more people about it. NO, if you want privacy…

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  9. David Week

    logged in via LinkedIn

    When I first read this article, I found it faintly disturbing. Looking just now at an article on HuffPost, I understand why:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/18/ben-nunery-dad-daughter-wedding-photos_n_4466529.html

    What I find disturbing is that if this privacy argument holds sway, sharing like this would attract opprobrium, rather than what it does attract, which is clearly positive and supportive: the best side of human community. The logical end result of this privacy argument is an…

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  10. Gayle Dallaston

    logged in via email @aspergicmoments.com.au

    I don't think the article is saying that all posts about children are bad - just that a discussion is in order about what is fair to the children and in their best interests.

    I don't have a problem with gushy parents posting on facebook - they'll be seen for what they are and not a reflection on the child. Children have always had to contend with embarrassing parents.

    But there are issues like facebook support groups where parents post intimate details about their children's problems which…

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  11. Vera Mazz

    logged in via Twitter

    Thank you Tom Fisher for your level headed comments. I agree with you.

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  12. Wesley Tanaka

    Owner of wtanaka.com at wtanaka.com

    I have struggled with this question myself, and these are the things I think about when I decide what to post:

    * I try to only post things that I'm comfortable being public to the entire world. I don't rely on social network privacy settings because of risk of software bugs or corporate mergers or policy changes.

    * Since so many people post information about their kids, it will become the norm for many people's embarrassing baby photos to already be online by the time you're in school or when…

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  13. Luther Uthayakumaran

    Ph.D Candidate in Arts and Media at UNSW Australia

    I agree. I am glad that the issue has finally been raised. You make a really good point that it actually disempowers children, as most parents are led into thinking that it actually empowers them..

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