Does sharing photos of your children on Facebook put them at risk?
Every time you post about your child on social media you are helping to create for them a data-rich, enduring and potentially problematic online profile. Some experts suggest we should exercise more caution
There is an unwritten rule that one does not post photos of other people’s children on Facebook. I know this. And yet in October 2012, swept away with the excitement of the birth of my son (and probably a little sleep-deprived), I made a terrible mistake. My friend, let’s call her Katy, invited me over to meet her own new arrival, a little boy exactly one month younger than my son, Max. I took a photo of the two of them lying side by side; one in a red Baby-gro, the other in white. Max was already a good two inches longer than the new baby, which I found startling as he was still so tiny, and he had already started to lose some of that crinkly new-baby look.
On my way home, I looked at the photo and felt a swell of pride. It seemed to say so much: here were two fresh baby boys who would likely grow up with a catalogue of shared childhood memories, their friendship predetermined by their parents’ relationship. Without really thinking, I opened the Facebook app on my phone and uploaded the photo, alongside a reference to my friend and the caption: “what a difference a month makes.”
People love photos of new babies, so it’s not surprising that within a couple of hours I had amassed tens of likes, as well as multiple comments. But then the email arrived.
It was from my friend. The tone was light-hearted, but she was obviously upset. Her inbox had been flooded with messages from friends congratulating her on the birth of their son. Most of them didn’t even know she had entered labour; she certainly hadn’t got around to sending out that all-important first photo. She asked if I would kindly delete the post, which I immediately did. I felt horrified; I had effectively broken the embargo on their baby.
Love it or loathe it, Facebook is a fact of modern life, and the arrival of smartphones has made the process of updating your status near-effortless. One implication is that most of us give far less thought to what we post online than in the days when we had to go home and switch on our computers before telling the world what we had been up to. Occasionally we make mistakes, posting an embarrassing photo or an angry comment, say, but we are consenting adults and these are our mistakes to make. By signing up to social networking sites we also consciously agree to them using our personal data to some degree. But what of our children?
Most people who have a relationship with a child will have posted, or thought about posting something about them on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter at some point. But is it safe, or even ethical to publish something about someone who can’t give their consent? And as the business models of social networking sites change and digital technology develops, could these innocent snapshots someday come back and bite our children on the behind?
When it comes to posting pictures of kids, parents are often the worst culprits. A recent US study found that 63% of mums use Facebook; of these, 97% said they post pictures of their child; 89% post status updates about them, and 46% post videos. I do it myself, though sparingly – and admittedly this is more to cultivate the image that my life hasn’t been completely swamped by my kids, rather than because of any safety fears. But there are photos that I probably wouldn’t share; naked photos of my kids; snaps where I or they are captured in unflattering poses; and shots that might clearly identify where we live (just in case someone decides to sneak over and attack us in the night). I have never really thought these rules through, they are more instincts.
I do it because I want to share the growth and development of my children with friends and relatives who don’t necessarily live nearby. It seems harmless, as my privacy settings mean that only my friends can see them. But is that good enough?
“There are two things to be careful about,” says Victoria Nash, acting director of the Oxford Internet Institute. “One is the amount of information that you give away, which might include things like date of birth, place of birth, the child’s full name, or tagging of any photographs with a geographical location – anything that could be used by somebody who wanted to steal your child’s identity.
“The second issue is more around consent. What type of information would children want to see about themselves online at a later date?”
As Sonia Livingstone, professor of social psychology at the London School of Economics, and an expert on children and the internet says, the nature of what is being posted is important: “I think we should start with the question of cost – if you post a picture of your child with the mark of the devil on their arm, or in a temper tantrum, perhaps that will have a future cost. It’s not all pictures, but certain pictures that are problematic.”
According to the online recruitment site Career Builder, around a fifth of employers use social networking sites to research job candidates, and close to 59% say they would be influenced by a candidate’s online presence. University admissions tutors are also rumoured to Google candidates, although the extent to which this occurs is unknown.
“If you put information out there, you are a possibly putting your child at risk in the present, and you could be putting them at risk in the future,” says Livingstone. “We don’t really have a good sense of how likely this is, but both are only likely to increase.”
I wonder about my fellow parent friends on Facebook – many of whom share photos of their children – so I post a status update asking for their thoughts. Most say they feel confident sharing information about their children because, like me, their privacy settings mean that these are only shared with friends. But as I dig deeper I realise that some friends have given more thought to this than I have.
Sarah is a friend with a year-old daughter, affectionately known as Libbet, who likes nothing better than watching Frozen in her princess dress, unscrewing her mum’s nail varnish and biting people’s toes. I know this because Sarah updates her Facebook feed with Libbet anecdotes and her own feelings about motherhood on a near-daily basis. Mostly, I find it entertaining, and it creates an emotional bond between us that would be all the weaker, were our interactions strictly limited to physical meet-ups – especially now that we live in different cities. Sarah says this is part of why she does it. “I think if I didn’t put stuff up, then the people we love would miss out on some special moments.”
However, she adds that she is very careful with her privacy settings, massively culled her friend list when Libbet was tiny, and will probably do another cull in the near future. “To me, Facebook is about staying in touch with people you really care about, not finding out what your old school friend’s neighbour’s daughter had for tea,” she says.
By using a pet name, rather than her daughter’s real name, Sarah has also afforded her some protection against those companies or individuals who might be interested in her daughter’s personal data; even if Sarah’s privacy settings let her down, a search for Libbet’s real name would not bring up any of her posts – at least for now.
Her approach is typical of many parents, says Nash. “Unless you literally post nothing at all, there is no perfect protection. But most parents probably find a happy medium, which is posting pictures or stories about their young children either without using their real name or without tagging them in pictures.”
This might be good precaution for now. But what about in 10 or 20 years, when today’s children reach adulthood? “It’s hard to know what Facebook will look like 15 to 20 years from now, and I suspect that they don’t know either,” says Sarita Yardi Schoenebeck at the University of Michigan, who researches mothers’ relationships with social media. Right now, Facebook and other sites use the personal data they collect to help advertisers reach their target market; it is how they make money. But that business model could change, and new tools are being developed to capture personal information all the time.
“It is increasingly difficult to secure anonymity online,” says Amy Webb, a futurist and CEO of the digital strategy firm Webbmedia Group. “Passwords and photos are easily hacked, and the more information that’s available, the easier it is to trace digital breadcrumbs back to one person.”
Wearable gadgets that can track the location of your child are already available, and some fear that these could be hacked. Meanwhile, Facebook already has a facial recognition tool on its US site that will scan photos and automatically identify people based on existing pictures and tags – although it is not currently available in Europe. But by the time today’s toddlers are teenagers, we can expect such algorithms to be far more sophisticated and widespread. Machine-learning algorithms have already advanced to the point where our faces are instantly recognisable, even as we age or if we deliberately change our appearance.
“I can see a scenario where the picture I post of my four-year-old then gets linked to one taken when they are 10, and to their Facebook or other profiles,” says Alice Marwick, who lectures on social media and digital culture at Fordham University in New York. “It becomes something that they have no control over. The doomsday scenario is a profile that can follow you around, be accessed by all sorts of different agencies, and be used in the future to decide whether you get student loans, if your university application is approved, or if you get a mortgage.”
Though data protection laws may guard against some of these worries, some parents, like Webb, feel an extreme approach is necessary. In order to protect their daughter’s future digital identity, she and her husband post nothing about her at all. What is more, before naming her, they ran their preferred names through an array of domain and keyword searches, checking for similar names or other negative content. Once they had picked a name, they took digital ownership of it so that by the time their daughter was born, she already had a registered URL, plus Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Github accounts, all linked to a single email address.
“We’re contributing enormous amounts of personal data to various databases and repositories,” Webb says. “That information is searchable by law enforcement agencies, marketers and even just savvy internet users. Our goal in the present is to protect her future digital identity.”
Extreme as Webb’s behaviour may seem to some, she is not alone. Google CEO Eric Schmidt has suggested people change their name in order to escape online shame and move on with their lives. I find these fears echoed by several of my own friends. Richard is a technology journalist who works for the BBC. When I ask if he posts pictures of his one-year-old daughter, he says he does, but only to a very limited circle of friends and he worries about it. “There’s a broad, nebulous fear that I’m giving away too much,” he says. “Our descendants will frown at us for many things, and I think that our lack of attention to Facebook and Google’s tracking of our lives from cradle to grave might be something they care about much more – or at least want to make an informed choice about participating in. When my daughter is 20, she may well be irritated at me for threatening the privacy of her early life.”
Many experts point out that even if you lock down your privacy settings to prevent strangers viewing your pictures and posts, that doesn’t stop others from uploading pictures of you or your kids. “In reality, there’s lots of other people posting information about you without your control and it is fairly difficult – if not impossible – to police the social media circles of everyone you know,” says Marwick.
It appears to be phenomenally difficult to have no digital footprint – even if you have not yet learned to type. Even Webb found herself caught out; in the process of trying to integrate her many social network and digital accounts, a couple of baby photos that she had edited using Instagram’s mobile editing tool somehow became public.
Webb never would have known, except that after writing about digital anonymity in Slate, several readers started rooting about and found those photos. You have to admire the tenacity of trolls.
Adults are not the only ones who are worried about digital privacy. According to a report by the Family Online Safety Institute, 76% of teenagers are very or somewhat concerned about their privacy, or being harmed by their online activity. In reality, it is unlikely that much of what we post about our children will result in bullying, in job applications being refused, or worse. Yet some feel additional safeguards are needed that would enable young people to delete unwanted content that they, or others post about them once they reach a certain age. “Maybe when you are 17 you will pass your driving test, and you will be allowed to check across all known databases in order to correct and wipe clean mistakes and start your adulthood fresh,” Livingstone suggests. Last week the campaigning group iRights launched five principles aimed at empowering young people to make the most of the digital world without putting themselves at risk.
“Principle number one is the right to remove content that you yourself put up if you are under 18,” says iRights’s founder, Baroness Beeban Kidron. “Young people experiment, they change and they mature.”
However, iRights also calls for a place to go for help that is not a court, if they are upset by things put up by others, even if they are not illegal.
The idea is that websites, companies, parents and educators can sign up to these principles with the ultimate goal of creating a framework through which people can judge their digital interactions with young people. The remaining principles are the right to know how the data being gathered about you is used; the right to be safe and comfortable; the right to agency; and the right to digital literacy.
“What these five things add up to is a conscious use of the net; using it in a way that is effective and positive for your life, and being given more skills and more support to navigate and understand what is unseen, unclear and occasionally unpleasant,” Kidron adds. Signatories so far include more than a hundred civil organisations, including children’s charities such as Barnardo’s, plus technology companies and academics.
As for the logistics of removing content from the web, that is another matter. In May, the European Court of Justice ruled that a person has the right to have a link relating to their name removed from a search engine if it is inaccurate, misleading or distressing – the so-called “right to be forgotten”. Yet many, including a House of Lords committee, have said the judgment is unworkable because smaller search engines do not have the resources to process the thousands of removal requests they are likely to receive. The committee also said that it was wrong to leave the task of deciding what to delete to a commercial company such as a search engine.
And yet for all this worry about privacy, there is an alternative future that could come to pass: the return of anonymity. Already, we are seeing teenagers rejecting sites such as Facebook in favour of apps like Snapchat, which enable photos to be shared transiently – a change in behaviour that parents might bear in mind the next time they are posting photos that will remain online indefinitely.
Rather than the big data scenario which sees us haunted by a ubiquitous digital footprint, we could end up with a digital world that thrives on pseudonyms and anonymity. “Apps like Snapchat, Whisper and Secret are popular with young people because they allow them to share information with each other without permanence,” says Marwick. “I think one of the reasons for this return to anonymous communication is precisely because sites that use people’s real names have become so problematic.”
Whatever the future holds, it is likely that our children’s digital footprint will look very different from our own. We grew up with the luxury of not having our lives documented in pictures online. Those embarrassing baby photos remained firmly locked up in albums, unless our parents decided to air them to potential romantic suitors.
But security concerns aside, perhaps it is also worth pondering just what our children will think about our posts when they grow up. “Ten years from now, almost all the next generation of teenagers will all have baby photos on Facebook; it’s not going to be something that stigmatises them,” says Schoenebeck.
“My guess is that it will magnify whatever relationship they already have with their parents. If they have a great relationship, they may look back on those photos and say, ‘Wow, I can appreciate what my mum went through.’ However, if they are upset with their parents they may view such posts as this infringement of their privacy, and use them as fuel to the fire.”
I think about the 248 friends I have on Facebook; many of them relics from my schooldays. Am I sure they are people I trust enough to share my intimate family moments with? Perhaps it’s time for friendship cull of my own, or at least to become more selective about which friends I share photos with. I also go back and check my own privacy settings, which haven’t been adjusted in several years. I am relieved to see that my posts are indeed still only being shared with friends. But there are other holes.
For instance, I haven’t ticked a box that says I can approve any photo I’m tagged in before it is broadcast to the rest of the world. If someone were to post a picture of me and my kids on Facebook, it would be me they tagged. It is a small comfort, but ticking that box affords me a degree of extra control.
Finally, I confront an issue that has been niggling at the back of my mind since I deleted that photo of Katy’s baby two years ago: is it really gone? I go back and check my own feed, and find no trace. Then I rack my brains for friends who liked or commented on the photo and scroll back through their Facebook pages. I find plenty of pictures of their own children, but none of Katy’s.
I contact Facebook asking for clarification, and they assure me that delete really does mean delete – although what happens to the metadata (location, tagging etc) added to a photo by users is less clear.
Possibly, that photo is still lurking in some obscure corner of cyberspace, but it doesn’t seem to be on Facebook. But if you have somehow stumbled across a cute photo of two tiny baby boys – one in red, one in white – and have forwarded it or published it elsewhere, kindly press delete. Their futures may depend on it.