In a world where global connection is just a thumb swipe away, more and more parents are asking themselves how to keep their kids safe online — especially when it comes to sharing seemingly harmless photos and videos on popular apps.
Prior to smartphones, family photos weren’t an easy thing to share online. Film had to be dropped off and developed — then the prints had to be picked up, scanned and uploaded, all on shaky-at-best DSL connections.
“That’s just one picture per day,” says George Finney, cybersecurity expert and author of Well Aware: Master the Nine Cybersecurity Habits to Protect Your Future. “And this doesn’t take into account the other parts of a child’s digital footprint, like how they use different apps on devices.”
What exactly is a ‘digital footprint?’
A digital footprint is something every Internet user has. Simply put, it’s defined as the trail of data we all create every time we go online, like a trail of little breadcrumbs.
Some digital footprints are considered “passive,” like when a web server logs your IP address, or when a website makes note of your online shopping interests. This kind of footprint is one you can’t help but leave; it’s information collected without your knowledge or intent, and it’s a largely unavoidable side effect of using the Internet.
However, our “active” digital footprints are breadcrumbs we deliberately leave online, contributing to potential privacy and security risks. Every time we upload a photo or video to Facebook or Instagram — every time we tweet a thought or leave a comment on TikTok — we help to build that “active” digital footprint. It’s a public portfolio of who we are, and it’s one we build ourselves.
This “active” digital footprint can be traced back to us or our families. It can be accessed by future employers, exploited by data-mining companies, collected and shared without our knowledge or permission and reveal information we wouldn’t want exposed, such as our location or the kind of consumer choices we make.
‘Once you post something online, it can quickly get out of your control.’
This digital trail of breadcrumbs, whether “passive” or “active,” may seem like an unavoidable part of living in the digital age, but it sparks larger questions of privacy and security — especially when children are inheriting an “active” digital footprint that they didn’t build themselves.
“We all have concerns about how social media companies track and sell information about kids. Right now, it’s those same social media companies in charge of what and how information is shared, and that has a big impact on parents’ choices,” says Finney. “Once you post something online, it can quickly get out of your control.”
Natalie D., a mom who lives in Virginia with her husband, 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son, explained why their family has chosen not to build an “active” digital footprint for their children: “Like many people having children right now, my husband and I were both teenagers when social media started to become a large part of mainstream culture, starting with MySpace and then Facebook.”
She continued, “Because we were there for the ‘birth’ of these types of platforms, we had the opportunity as teenagers and young adults to decide what we would share and to curate how we would portray ourselves on social media. We would like to give our children the opportunity to do that too, when they are older.”
The act of sharing kids’ photos and videos online has grown in popularity as technology and connectivity continue to develop — so much so that it has its own term: “sharenting.”
What is ‘sharenting?’
“Sharenting,” sometimes also known as “oversharenting,” is defined as “the practice of using social media to share news and images of children.”
That means that the vast majority of Americans are walking around with a computer in their back pocket, connected to the Internet 24/7 — an unthinkable concept just 18 years ago, when only 54.6% of families owned a computer with Internet connection.
And with such constant connectivity, it can be tempting for parents to document and share life’s everyday moments — such as an innocent trip to the ice cream shop, a picnic at the park or a family meal at a restaurant.
That temptation to share is understandable. Thanks to social media, “long-distance” is no longer; friends and family members in other states or countries can be kept as close and informed as if they lived right next door. And for some, that connectivity is a great comfort and joy.
But due to the issues of consent it raises, some parents are opting out of “sharenting” — and some medical experts feel that might be the healthiest choice.
“As a pediatrician, I can tell you that kids will often say they don’t like what their parents post. The good news is, they can generally tell their parents directly, which helps guide the parent to stop doing it and even pull down prior images,” says Dr. Cara Natterson, pediatrician, speaker, author and founder of Worry Proof Consulting and OOMLA.
“The problem is that it takes an aware and mature kid to have this conversation. While a 15-year-old is typically pretty capable of giving his parents this message loud and clear, a 2-year-old is not,” she adds.
Privacy issues, security concerns and questions of consent are all leading many parents to rethink the way they’re sharing kids’ personal information online.
Why are parents censoring or obscuring their kids’ faces?
In an effort to share facets of their lives online while still protecting the image of their children, many parents are finding clever ways to hide their kids’ faces — including celebrity parents.
Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard are two famous parents who have chosen to keep their kids’ identities tightly protected. When they do post the rare photo of their two daughters, Lincoln and Delta, their faces are always obscured by an emoji.
Bell explained this social media choice to Romper: “My feeling is that I chose a career in the public eye. I chose to be quoted, I chose to have my picture taken. I don’t know them yet. I don’t know if they will want that. So I really don’t have the right to choose for them.”
Danielle Fishel of Boy Meets World fame has also chosen to hide her son Adler’s face online — but instead of emojis, she posts photos of her son from behind, keeping his face hidden from the camera.
In an Instagram post, Fishel explained that it wasn’t an easy decision to hide her child’s face online. “The truth is, choosing not to post pictures of him kinda sucks. I wanna show you my baby every day… but I worry about a couple things. 1. His safety. There are weirdos out there. Enough said. 2. Putting pictures and facts about him onto the internet that he doesn’t have any say in. I’d like for him to be able to curate his own footprint on the internet in the future without being mortified we posted about his fear of swimming or his first crush.”
Some celebrities, like Cameron Diaz, choose not to post any photos of their children at all — opting only for text updates.
But it’s not just celebrities who are choosing to conceal their kids’ faces online. Non-famous parents like Natalie D. are also choosing to obscure their children’s identities.
For Natalie, protecting her kids’ faces online was a decision she and her husband made for the safety and security of their family.
“I have read several accounts of parents being contacted by the authorities because a picture of their infant child, which they had uploaded to their personal social media account, had been distributed as child pornography,” she says.
“We definitely do not want images of our children, from the iconic bathtub photo with a tastefully placed washcloth, to even an innocent beach photo, being used in that context,” the mom of two adds.
However, it’s not just social media users that Natalie is wary of, but social media companies as a whole.
“Since social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram essentially own any images you post, and nothing on the internet ever really goes away, even if you delete it, we feel that the only safe way to share digital pictures of our kids and still retain full control of the images is to use a privacy-conscious cloud storage system which has a password that we can share with family and friends.”
But Natalie and her family have discovered that the less they’re connected online, the more they’re able to connect in real life.
“One added benefit of not posting pictures of my kids on social media is that I feel I am more present in those capture-able moments with them. Yes, I still take pictures and videos of them when I should probably be experiencing the moment without a camera lens instead,” she says.
“However, when I take those pictures, I’m not also planning in my head what filter I will use, what witty caption I will add, what gifs would go perfectly with this picture, etc,” she adds.
“And when I go back through my camera roll at the end of the day or the week, I can just enjoy the pictures I’ve taken without having to spend any time or effort preparing them to post on social media.”
What do cybersecurity experts think about ‘sharenting’?
Covering kids’ faces with emojis is just one step in protecting them online, according to Finney.
“It does help protect the privacy of the child, but there is some software available that claims to help remove emojis from photos,” he says.
Additionally, some entities are interested in more than just kids’ faces. “The other information in the photo, like where they were or who they were with, can be used in a bad way if that information gets in the wrong hands,” Finney adds.
Instead of — or perhaps in addition to — using an emoji, Finney advises parents to add watermarks to photos to help track where a child’s image is being used.
“You can use tools like Google’s reverse image search to see if that photo is being used online by someone else. There have been cases where parents have discovered their children’s photos being used without their permission for corporate advertising.”
To see where an image has ended up online, parents can visit Google Images and select “search by image.” They can then search either by URL (perhaps the link to a public Instagram photo) or by uploading an image from their phone or computer. From there, they can browse to see if that image is being publicly used anywhere else online.
But even a cybersecurity expert like Finney admits that “finding the right balance between a child’s privacy and connection with your community can be challenging.”
“Different parents may have different comfort levels for the privacy of their kids,” he says. “Parents should all be aware of this and ask before posting pictures or tagging other kids on social media.”
He continued, “This generation is the first to grow up with social media as the default, so we should all help inform and protect them so that they can make their own choices when they’re ready… Parents of kids today are navigating these issues for the first time because we’re raising the first digital generation. As parents, we are called to understand more about security and privacy so that we can help raise them to be well aware of their world.”
What do medical experts think about ‘sharenting’?
Some medical experts have mental health concerns for future generations — especially as our online lives continue to grow and evolve.
“There’s the voyeuristic component — we live in a culture where strangers like to peek into other peoples’ lives. Posting images of kids just reinforces the cycle. We all need to think about where this takes our culture as a whole,” says Dr. Natterson, author of Decoding Boys.
“What does it say to our kids that we tell them not to talk to strangers — but we post images of them for strangers to see? The mixed messaging takes a toll down the road when impulsiveness takes over the teen brain and phones with cameras are everywhere.”
While there’s no denying that sharing pieces of our lives offers us an enjoyable vehicle of expression, Dr. Natterson recommends tightening the circle with whom we’re sharing those pieces.
“Sharing images can be so connecting… but usually only with people whom we know,” she says. “The advice for images is no different from the advice about words or anything else: When we share publicly and widely, beyond our trusted inner circle, we ought to think twice before we put anything out there.”
Should I censor my kids’ faces on social media?
At the end of the day, parenting is a personal journey, and no two journeys look alike.
For some parents, publicly posting photos and videos of their family life brings joy, connection and community that enriches their life. For others, a protected online presence is preferred, and they find more intimate ways of sharing photos and videos with the people they love.
It’s up to each parent to decide what’s best for their family — while still considering the future feelings, safety and well-being of their little ones.
“When in doubt, don’t post,” advises Dr. Natterson. “When posting, keep the circle of viewers tight. Think about how this kid in 10 or 15 or 20 years will feel about the picture of his cute baby butt or her face covered with food. Think about why you are posting, and for whom.”
And if your children are old enough to discuss the topic, communication and conversation are key.
“Like everything else in the realm of parenting, my advice is to talk to your kid. Just talk. The conversations will morph and evolve over time. But if it’s a two-way street, your child will eventually educate you as much as you do in return,” Dr. Natterson adds.
If you’re unsure about the safest route when it comes to social media and the Internet at large, there are great online resources that can help — such as the Family Online Safety Institute and its “How To Be A Good Digital Parent” toolkit.
And if you’re curious about your current privacy settings on your favorite social media apps, online privacy checkers can be a helpful tool in reconfiguring your settings.
When it comes to social media in the digital age, none of us quite know where this ship is headed, but we can all learn how to better navigate the choppy waters — if not for ourselves, then for our children and future generations at large.
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