Most parents imagine their kids’ online safety becoming relevant only when they’re in their teens.
After all, that’s when you might decide to let them have a phone and social media accounts of their own.
Fewer parents actually consider the long-term implications of sharenting—that is, posting photos of their children online.
By the time a child is 5, their parents will have posted an average of 1,500 photos of them on social media.
Even way back in 2017, Ofcom revealed that 1 in 5 parents posts photos of their children online, while 36% restricted access only to their online followers—if they even uploaded them at all.
While it might seem harmless on the surface to upload cute pics of our kids—and obviously it should be harmless—there are several factors you may not have considered when it comes to maintaining your children’s online safety and privacy.
Why might it not be safe to share photos of your child online?
The NSPCC has long urged parents to think twice before posting photos of their kids on social media.
That isn’t to say they advise against doing so in and of itself, rather that parents should consider whether their children would be embarrassed by the photos when they were older.
As a spokesperson told the BBC, “If you aren’t sure, it’s best not to post.”
It all comes down to the digital footprint you’re creating for your child, without their having had any say in the matter.
Once that photo’s online, it’s never entirely in your control again, even if you hit delete soon after having posted. You don’t know who might have downloaded it.
That’s not to suggest the person downloading it has any nefarious intentions, it does mean you’ll never be 100% sure.
Creating an unrequested digital footprint for your child is the broadest way to encapsulate all the problems of sharenting – to get more specific, the actual risks fall into 3 categories:
- Privacy: There’s always a chance that a bad actor could utilise your child’s photos in the future for identity theft.
- Cyber-safety: I hate that I even have to write this, it’s vital to bear in mind: there’s a risk that your innocent photos will be harvested by predators, the absolute dregs of society. Something I had no idea happened until one day when a stranger started taking pictures and videos of my daughter in the playpark.
According to Toby Dagg, Senior Investigator at Australia’s Children’s eSafety Commissioner, 50% of all images on paedophile sites are ‘sourced directly from social media’.
- Psychological: It’s all very well—and indeed understandable—to post a funny photo of your children on a whim.
They’ve got ice cream smeared all over their face; they’re having a right royal tantrum in the supermarket; they’re running along the shore naked.
Take a moment, and think: In 10, 15 years time, will they mind that I’ve posted this?
What implications could there be if their well-meaning but shortsighted friends got hold of it and plastered it all over their own social media accounts?
If you’re going to post photos of your children at all, stick with those that are flattering, or that could in no way be misappropriated by those with nasty or malevolent intentions way in the future.
When they’re old enough to have their own social media, perhaps your child will encourage you to go ahead and post that funny photo, or even post it themselves—the key thing is that it’s posted with their permission.
3 top tips for sharenting safely
I get it—we live in the social media age.
Pretty much all our lives are inextricably linked to and dependent on the internet, and lots of us rely on social media to stay in touch with friends and family far and wide.
It’s wonderful to be able to see their everyday joys in a single click. I’m certainly no exception.
As a mum or dad, it’s only natural you want to show the world the wonders of your little one. You find yourself snapping pictures all day long, and of course you want your friends to share in the joy of a lipstick-smeared face, shoes on the wrong feet, your little one cradling their own ‘babies’ (dolls to you and me).
I totally get it!
The funny little things my daughter does every day, the achievements: finally climbing the ladder in the park, stroking the goat at the petting zoo.
I want the world to see just how smart and funny my delightful daughter is. So if you are going to sharent, at least understand these 3 cornerstones of safe sharenting.
1. Ask permission
If your child’s old enough to have an opinion, seek it.
If they don’t want you posting that photo, respect their decision, just as you would anyone else regardless of their age.
If they’re not old enough to really understand the question, consider how they’d feel in the future if they saw that photo online.
This isn’t as unrealistic as you might think: my daughter was under 2 the first time she asked me not to video or photograph her.
2. Check your privacy settings
Make sure only your followers can see the pictures you post.
Just bear in mind, though, that this doesn’t guarantee one of them won’t save a photo.
Before posting, do consider how well you really know these people.
For example, I have Facebook friends who I’ve simply met in the airport lounge or at a restaurant.
Some I’ve only ever met online.
3. Practice low-level vigilance:
No one wants to be constantly alert to threat—that’s no way to live—put measures in place that will allow you to rest easy.
Consider turning off your GPS when posting, so no one knows where the photo was taken.
Perhaps use only nicknames or pseudonyms when referring to your children, or simply don’t name them at all.
Look into photo sharing sites like Flickr, where your profile is accessible only to those who have the password from you.
What are the rules for posting photos of other people’s children?
Your child’s existence isn’t independent of other kids’!
They likely enjoy a thriving social life, mixing with the kids at school and the kids of your friends and family.
Birthday parties, school plays, team sports—there are all kinds of situations in which you’ll capture a memorable snap of your child while they’re surrounded by their peers.
What’s the etiquette of putting that photo online where a potentially huge number of people can see it?
The (unwritten) rule is simple: don’t post photos of someone else’s child on social media without their permission.
According to Ofcom, 70% of parents would consider it unacceptable if someone uploaded an image of their child online without having sought their consent.
I’m definitely in that 70%.
Furthermore, most people wouldn’t be happy if you even just took a photo of their child without their consent.
If your child is playing with another child and you want to take a photo, always get the parent’s permission, and make it clear that the photo isn’t going on social media.
Do what you think is right for your family—and for your child
Sharenting is a divisive issue, with large and vociferous camps on both sides of the debate.
If you do want to sharent, that’s fine—just do it in a way that protects your child as much as possible.
What is also tough is going against the online grain. I have never posted my childs face online, well, so far anyway.
Most of my friends find that to be pretty strange, however, it just didn’t sit right with me. And that is why it is so important to listen to your inner voice on this one.
Your child is the light of your life, so it’s natural to want to extol their virtues for your nearest and dearest to enjoy from afar. Just keep a close eye on your privacy settings.
Be quietly but continually vigilant.
Consider withholding other aspects of their identity—not just their name, also where they go to school, what park they frequent, how old they are—their friends’ names.
And just one final thought to leave you with: we’re all guilty of spending too much time on social media and not enough in the present.
I’ve done it myself. In fact, I am doing it here. I am aware that my daughter’s photographs are in my social media and on this website. I don’t know yet how she is going to feel about this when she is older.
Will she think it is enough that people can’t see her face?
Our children are part of the first entirely online generation, born into a world in which their identity has potentially been accessible to strangers since the day they were born.
If you catch yourself staring down at your phone when you should be gazing out, upon the beauty of their childhood, well—put the thing down.
By all means share the moments you consider meaningful, avoid the trap of documenting every detail of their lives, something that is easier said than done.
Childhood is a transient, blurry, fast-moving beast. You might just miss it while you sit rapt in your pocket-sized black mirror.