Why I Put my dog’s photo on social media, but not my son’s
- By Joanna Stern, Wall Street Journal
- March 13, 2019
On Dec. 4, 2018, baby Arthur Lance Maddox Parker made his debut on Instagram. Accompanying the photo of the adorable sleeping, swaddled newborn was the following post: “I’d like to welcome to the world my son… Mommy and uncle Maddox love you so much Artie.”
Just your average internet baby announcement. Except it wasn’t true. The baby pictured was born in February 2016 and is the daughter of Emory Keller-Kurysh, a 33-year-old woman from Saskatchewan, Canada. Ms. Keller-Kurysh took the photo with her phone, in her hospital room, and posted it on her Instagram account.
I came across “Arthur” in an Instagram baby role-play community—people find photos of babies and children on the internet, repost them and pretend the kids are their own. Yes, that happens. I reached out to the role-play account owner but didn’t receive a reply. When I alerted Facebook Inc. FB +0.60% -owned Instagram, it shut down the account, because it violated the social network’s terms of service. The real mom, Ms. Keller-Kurysh, changed her Instagram account to private so only people she approves can see photos of her children.
You might have to watch a hospital video about the dangers of shaking your baby just hours after the child is born, but there is no training for protecting your child’s digital identity from online predators and data-hungry companies alike.
The generation that came of age oversharing every restaurant splurge and tropical trip is now starting to have kids. And I’m a member of it. Within two days of my son’s arrival, I posted about him publicly on Instagram—name, face, birthday and all. I regret that now. I’ve stopped posting photos of his face and have taken down old posts.
I’m not saying sharing photos of your children is a terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad thing. There are many benefits to posting on social media. I smile ear to ear when I see a video of my niece who lives across the country. But before we share, we need to ask important questions—and take necessary precautions.
How will my child look at it?
There’s a lot I don’t know about the person my son will become. I don’t know if he’ll aspire to be a world famous, no-filter YouTube star. I don’t know if he’ll find the video of him trying to flush his poop down the potty funny or embarrassing. (Answer: It’s funny.)
“Parents have to be clear that one day their children will come face-to-face with their disclosures,” says Stacey Steinberg, a juvenile law attorney and law professor at the University of Florida who studies “sharenting,” an actual area of academic research. “We need to balance a child’s right to privacy and our right to share,” she said.
What to do: Consider if your photo or comment invades your child’s privacy or might cause embarrassment. Some subjects are good bets: bed wetting, tantrums, health issues.
Prof. Steinberg suggests limiting the amount you post, or even deleting posts every few months. Engage in conversations about photo sharing with your children, even with those as young as 4 or 5. Emphasize the idea that it is their image and they decide who can see it.
The safest bet? Create your own private social network with messaging apps or services like Apple Photos or Google Photos. You can invite family and friends to shared albums and update them daily with photos and captions.
How will someone else look at it?
Here’s a not-so-fun exercise for share-happy parents: Go through your Facebook, Instagram and Twitter feeds and make a list of the info you might have posted. Name? Birthday? Locations? Doctor visits? Good friends and family members? Bath-time fun?
Try to see that through the eyes of an insurer. Or a hacker. Or even a child predator.
“We often see people overexposing their children—nude photos, bath-time photos, beach photos—and hashtagging them, which allows this to be searchable content and allows predators to find children,” says Carly Asher Yoost, chief executive of Child Rescue Coalition, an organization that works with law enforcement to locate people who download or distribute child pornography.
Even on Instagram, I came across a number of comment threads where people appeared to be trading links to child pornography. Instagram has since shut down those accounts.
“Keeping children and young people safe on Instagram is hugely important to us,” an Instagram spokeswoman said. “We do not allow content that endangers children, and we will not hesitate to take action when we find accounts that break these rules.” Instagram and Facebook provide written guides for parents. The company says it has automated systems to detect nudity in uploaded photos and is improving its capabilities all the time.
What to do: Many parents opt to keep photos of their children off social media until they are old enough to be part of the conversation; some who do share conceal their children’s faces—for instance with emojis. But other parents I spoke to didn’t realize how visible their public Instagram accounts were, especially when photos are hashtagged with things like #pottytraining or #bathtime.
If you are sharing photos of your children, make your posts and your account private. Unfriend or block any followers you don’t feel comfortable with. Remember that your Facebook cover photo—where parents often show off their children—is always public.
If you have to have a public account, for professional or community interactions, don’t divulge any private information about your children, including their names. And don’t give permission to brands to use your children’s photos unless you really think it’s serving a greater purpose.
How will technology look at it?
Smartphones and social media have combined to form an unprecedented state of surveillance. Information comes out on a seemingly daily basis about what Facebook has been gathering about us, where it goes and how little control we really have over limiting it. All the while, the company grows its capabilities in artificial intelligence, facial recognition and other new technologies.
“It goes from the age-old embarrassment of ‘Mom, you are sharing this!’ to ‘Mom, you are sharing me over time with Facebook’s facial-recognition algorithms!’” says Gennie Gebhart, associate director of research at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco advocacy group.
While Facebook might suggest tagging a child’s face when you share a photo, a company spokeswoman says it doesn’t gather facial-recognition information about children and doesn’t store or collect information about minors before Facebook allows them to have accounts at age 13.
There’s also the potential for “deep fakes”: software that uses photos to generate strikingly real-looking video clips. Experts I spoke with said the process is improving, and they worried about how it might be used by cyberbullies and child pornographers.
What to do: Private sharing and messaging options are best. Even Mark Zuckerberg agrees.
If you do share on Facebook, make sure facial recognition is turned off by going to Settings > Privacy. Apple Photos and Google Photos use facial recognition to group photos of the same people. Apple performs facial recognition on your devices, and while the metadata is synced through the cloud, Apple says it never sees that data. Google does send it to the cloud for processing, but you can turn face grouping off. Google says it doesn’t use facial recognition for advertising.
Our No. 1 job as parents is to protect our children. The No. 1 job of the social networks has been clicks, at the cost of privacy and protection of its users. No matter how cute the kids are acting when you point the camera at them, pause before you post—or maybe just don’t post at all.