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KIDS ARE NOT CONTENT: Protecting our kids online

Dec 08, 2022

If you are up to date on current events you have likely heard about the outrage over the luxury fashion brand Balenciaga’s recent disturbing holiday ad campaign for their new line of bags. In short, they featured young children holding teddy bears in bondage harnesses and costume. Another ad featured an office themed add that involved a reference to a supreme court case on child sexual abuse material. Many began accusing Balenciaga and its creative director, Demna, of condoning pedophilia and child exploitation. I have seen a lot of justified outrage on the internet from many news outlets as well as individual social media accounts. I have also noticed that some of these social media accounts  tend to excessively share images and videos of their children in all states of emotion and (un)dress. For many years I have been talking about the ethics and dangers of sharing our kids online. I found it somewhat contradictory for some personalities to be disgusted by Balenciaga while at the same time they are sharing images of their children for their 50,000 plus followers (this is true even if you don’t have a massive social media platform too). This is exploitative as well and needs to be discussed. My intent here is not to shame anyone but to better inform parents and consumers what the true online landscape is. 

According to a 2010 survey, 92% of 2-year-olds already have an online presence. More than 80 percent of babies younger than that are already on social media too. Many kids have a digital scrapbook before they are even born! At a very early age these kids are already having their online identities shaped by their parents. Given the permanent state of the internet (yes, even if you delete it, the internet is forever) this raises a real question about child safety, privacy, consent and the parent-child relationship.

It makes sense that parents want to share images of their kids. I know I love to see my friends’ (and family’s) kids growing up and reaching milestones. I also know that there are safe ways to share these special moments that don’t put our kids in danger and don’t infringe on their rights to privacy and protection. Sending images via WhatsApp chats or text, emails to specific people and even a private social media page where you know all of your followers and you only post images of your children fully dressed can be protective measures. You can also ask family and friends not to share your images on their own platforms.

The state of parental public oversharing online, also known as sharenting, has reached worrisome new heights. Sharenting is when parents use social media to publicly share their child’s life. They are literally sharing every parenting moment. It is important to note that kids cannot give consent to their parents to share their private information. Even if they do, it is definitely not informed consent because they cannot fully comprehend what they are consenting to. Certainly not when it comes to consenting to be on social media; even we as adults are just beginning to learn the impact of social media use and sharing! Contrary to popular belief, social media privacy settings have little bearing on how far and wide an image actually travels. Moreover, according to Pew Research, only one-third of parents’ online friends are “actual” friends which means that two-thirds of parents’ online friends are not people they have any real connection to (think about the people who follow you and you follow online, how many of them would you actually stop and talk to in the street?) and yet they are sharing their children’s very personal moments with them.

Also, if one of your family members or friends has a sexual behavior problem with children (remember that 90% of child sexual abuse is committed by someone the child knows and trusts), that adorable photo of your child in the bath, their first time on the potty, or in their cute little tankini on the beach is simply downloaded – and stored or shared. I know, you are likely thinking, “Thank G-d, none of my friends or family members have a sexual behavior problem with children.” Well, the statistics just don’t support this. Most of us have someone in our social media network who, unbeknownst to us, has already or will sexually abuse a child. It should be noted that the majority of content for child predators is not manufactured, it is shared by parents in public posts.

Children have a right to privacy that many parents are invading through publicly displaying their children on social media. Kids do not need to be on social media and it seems parents are putting them online for their own benefit. Social media accounts tend to get more engagement when they post cute pictures of their kids or have them do “try ons” of clothing “gifted” from the latest kids line. Kids should not be used as algorithm boosters though. It is especially upsetting when you see a child asking NOT to be filmed or shared (or looking visibly uncomfortable or shy) and their parents ignore or laugh off their upset and continue to share. This is not only violating to the child but to the audience as well. We as a society have basically accepted this disrespectful behavior online but I am here to urge you not to be bystanders. I encourage you all to do more to reconsider your current online practices and to think about the accounts you follow who do this and what your role can be in refusing to remain complicit and create meaningful change.

It is highly unnerving to know that there are adults out there who know so much information about a child and that child does not even know that adult exists. I know that I always felt uncomfortable if I saw an “influencer’s” child and I knew that they had NO IDEA who I was but I knew what they had eaten for lunch and what pajamas they wore to bed. I will always unfollow accounts who share this kind of content.

In a paper published in the Journal of Consumer Affairs, social marketing and public policy researcher Laurel Cook outlines the risks sharenting poses to kids. “Children don’t get to choose to be on the internet, and what’s more, they don’t get to choose where online they show up,” Cook says.  One major area of concern is the collection of children’s data by technology companies, websites and other internet users. For example, pictures that include your child’s school, age and grade can all be used by companies to create psychological or behavioral profiles about the child creating a permanent digital footprint they never consented to. This can put your kids at risk for identity theft. At the other end of the spectrum are the scenarios where individuals who seek to exploit children gain access to this information and use it in dangerous ways, known as digital kidnapping. Digital kidnapping is when a stranger steals a minor’s photo from the internet and posts the photo as if it is their own. Criminals have leveraged photos of children to create completely new identities — and even used these personas to infiltrate the lives of other children. You can only imagine some of the horrible crimes that ensue from there.

It should be noted that platforms are allowing images of children to be stolen by child predators and use them on fake profiles to network with each other. This is happening despite Meta claiming to have a zero-tolerance policy towards child exploitation. The FBI reports there are over 500,000 active predators online each day. This means if you are posting publicly those individuals have the same access to the images you are sharing of your child. It may be an innocent image to you but many individuals online view our children differently. When you post public images of your children online, you immediately lose control of them. You do not know where they could potentially end up. Remember that the worst people in society have access to social media where you are posting your children.

Unfortunately, I also have to talk about how cruel and harmful it is to take a video of your child crying or tantruming and share it on the internet. Some people have said they do this "just for their kids". They want to show them how they look when they are out of control and tantruming in hopes that they will manage themselves better. Here's the thing though, not only does this not give them any skills to regulate themselves better but it also shames and humiliates them. How would you feel if, in your most vulnerable state, I took out a camera and started to film you? Would you want to watch it afterwards and feel inspired to "introspect"? Would you believe I had your best interest at heart? Or would you feel confused, violated, hurt and disrespected? Other people think meltdowns are great social media content. It shows how #thestruggleisreal. They are being so "relatable" or worse, it's "funny" - it's not. This is, in fact, exploitative and traumatic for the children being filmed. Kids are not content and certainly not in their most delicate moments. If you see this being shared, do your part in protecting children and unfollow.

Research has shown that children of all ages express negative feelings about sharenting and it often leads to bullying and peer rejection and can even conflict with a child’s own expressed identity, giving them an identity that does not reflect who they are. I often discuss that childhood wellbeing is not limited to the traditional ideas of health. Stacey Steinberg, associate law professor at University of Florida’s Levin College authored a paper titled “Sharenting: Children’s Privacy in the Age of Social Media,” where she so aptly says “Children who grow up with a sense of privacy, coupled with supportive and less controlling parents, fare better in life. Studies show these children have a better sense of overall wellbeing and report greater life satisfaction than children who enter adulthood having had less autonomy in childhood. It is important that children are able to form their own identity and create their own sense of both private and public self to thrive as young people and eventually adults.”

Finally, even if your child seems excited about social media now you do not know how they will feel when they are older. Your child may be upset and feel resentful that so much of their lives were shared for public viewing. You cannot ever know for sure how your kids will feel about being shown to everyone all the time and the effect it can have on their digital footprint. Children have their right to their own digital autonomy and they should be in control of their own digital footprint, just like we are.

Social media can be really toxic and dangerous and we need to do more to protect our children. It is also worth mentioning that you can never know the long-term impact of what you share about your child. So, you may be sharing about your child’s illness, medical issue or behavior struggles in order to raise awareness or build a supportive community but this could come back to bite your child when they become an adult and prospective schools, employers or mates are looking in to them. There are ways to share about these things while still protecting your child’s privacy. Do not share their name, do not share their image (if you do, pixelate it or cover their face), do not share their exact age (you can give a range), do not share their school, birthday or summer camp.

Child advocate, Feather Berkower of Parenting Safe Children shared these questions to consider when posting photos of your children on the Internet:

1. Consent - Has your child agreed to have their photo online? Does your child understand the possible implications of their image on the Internet? Do you? Can you child consent? If you support and teach body safety, do you believe you need permission from your child to post their images online? Do you believe your child should have a voice in what information is shared about them? Are these issues important to you?

2. Privacy - Do you believe your child has a right to privacy? How about on the Internet? Does your child have the right to their own online identity? Have you thought about how photos of children can be repurposed for inappropriate or illegal means, how children's identity can be stolen, how photos can be used to embarrass or bully children by their peers - how they will feel about what you share, or how the most innocent images can be digitally kidnapped?

3. Risk of your photo in the hands of a person involved with child sexual abuse material -Once a photo is posted on Facebook, Instagram or anywhere online, it lives on the Internet permanently, even if you later delete it.  Social media privacy settings have little bearing on how far and wide an image actually travels.  A child's photo can end up in an advertisement or on pornography sites. The most innocent images of children can be accompanied by sexually explicit comments.  

To sum up, the state of child exploitation on social media apps is highly problematic. Since these apps are not only not doing their part to protect our children and instead, they are enabling this issue, we are solely responsible to do this. I encourage you all to check your intentions before posting. Consider the audience, the purpose of posting and the possible negative effects. How important is it to share that image or video of your child? If you are a creator on social media, is your content dependent on the presence of your children? I urge you to ask yourself why you need them to build your business and to consider that this could be harmful.  What would your page/ business be without images of your kids?

Nelson Mandela famously said, “The true character of a society is revealed in how it treats its children.” Let us do more to protect our children’s physical and emotional safety and wellbeing. Let’s create a world where children are respected and protected. Let’s make sure that we do more to ensure that children, one of the most vulnerable groups, are held close and kept safe. It starts with each of you.



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