It’s typical for adults to mention a child’s name and birthdate in birth announcements and other posts on sites like Facebook and Instagram, for instance, which puts kids at risk of identity theft and digital kidnapping—when someone lifts images of another person’s kids and portrays them as their own. Some parents publish real-time information about their children’s whereabouts, potentially risking their safety. And well-meaning adults readily go online to share photos of their kids in a variety of intimate settings.
In Steinberg’s new paper, “Sharenting: Children’s Privacy in the Age of Social Media,” set to be published in the Emory Law Journal in the spring of 2017, she writes of a blogger who posted photos of her young twins while they were potty training. “She later learned that strangers accessed the photos, downloaded them, altered them, and shared them on a website commonly used by pedophiles,” Steinberg wrote. “This mother warns other parents not to post pictures of children in any state of undress, to use Google’s search features to find any images shared online, and to reconsider their interest in mommy blogging.”
“I’m the one responsible,” the woman wrote in a 2013 blog post about the incident, warning her readers to be careful about what they publish online. “I took the picture and shared it. There’s nobody to blame but me.”
But even posting baby photos to a private Facebook group or protected Instagram account is not without risk. “With private groups, there is this false sense that everybody in the group knows each other and has the same interests in mind,” Steinberg told me.
Parents and caregivers don’t just have to trust that the people they choose to share with won’t download, redistribute, or otherwise misuse images—they also have to trust that the people who can access shared baby photos have their own robust privacy settings, and that they control who else can use their social media accounts, and so on. Many parents believe privacy settings are enough of a safety net, Steinberg wrote, so “they use little discretion sharing with their chosen audience. In reality, even these posts can reach a large audience.”
The implications of all this sharing extend far beyond questions of security, and get at the heart of a new paradigm in parenting. Caregivers are no longer merely gatekeepers for their children but also, in many cases, potentially the distributors of information about their children to mass audiences. There are clear benefits to all this sharing—for families and friends who are geographically dispersed, and for parents who share details about their children’s lives to seek advice from trusted friends, for example—but this new model can also pose a threat to a child’s sense of autonomy over her developing identity.
Consider, for instance, a Christmas card that ends up going viral online—a now-routine seasonal phenomenon. Last year, controversy erupted over a Louisiana family’s photo, which featured a mother and two girls with tape placed over their mouths, a small boy making a thumbs-up gesture, and a father holding a sign that said “peace on Earth.” In the ensuing backlash, critics decried the photo as sexist. In the backlash to the backlash, those critics were called killjoys. Besides, the second argument went, people have a right to express seasons greetings in whatever manner they choose.