The court sided with the mother and required the grandmother to take down the pictures. She also had to pay court costs, and if she did not remove the photos promptly or reposted them again later, she would face fines.
This case caught my eye. I have spent much of the past five years studying children’s privacy online, and it has been hard to find cases that address these issues because social media is still so new.
When parents post about their children, kids sometimes are upset about it, but kids generally have no right to control what their parents share about them online, a phenomenon known as sharenting. However, parents sometimes have control over what health-care providers, schools and businesses post online about their kids. It gets much more complicated, though, when someone else shares — like a grandparent, friend, sibling or stepparent.
Many parents would agree that people should not post pictures of other people’s kids without permission, but it is more of a moral issue than a legal one in the United States right now. We have stronger free speech protections and weaker privacy protections than individuals in Europe, so the laws that gave the mother living in the Netherlands relief would not apply here. That said, laws in the United States are constantly changing, and we are seeing states create stronger online privacy protections.
Parents can avoid the expense, stress and uncertainty of a court case, though, by setting online sharing boundaries up front with relatives and friends. Here are some key concepts to keep in mind when talking to people who interact with your children regularly.
Own your expertise, and know that there is no “correct way” to deal with these issues. You may not be an expert on social media, but you are an expert on your kids, and they look to you to protect their digital footprint. We are the first generation to raise kids alongside social media, and our kids are the first generation of kids to grow up shared. There are few road maps to guide us. While it is important for parents to make well-informed choices, social media is an area of parenting where we need to rely not only on research, but also on our instincts as our children’s protectors.
Know the dangers. Kids do face real risks when people post too much information about them online. These dangers could affect their financial futures, their mental well-being and perhaps even their physical safety. While not all the risks are avoidable, this is a place where education can inform how parents structure their sharing conversations. Parents, armed with information, can create a social media sharing plan that fits their family’s needs.
Start with the basics. People who care for your kids should know your general social media sharing policies. Are you on social media? Do you let your children have social media accounts? Can friends and family post pictures online that feature your kids? Do you want to be “tagged” if someone shares a picture of your kid? Start with broad strokes — you can deal with the more specific issues on a case-by-case basis.
Consider having different rules for different settings. Birthday parties, weddings and sporting events create challenges for parents who avoid sharing pictures of their children online. It is hard to accept an invitation to a birthday, for example, and then keep your child out of the group pictures. If you have safety concerns or otherwise strong feelings about your children being posted in group shots, be up front with the party hosts or sports coaches.
Beware of blanket social media releases. Many schools now ask parents to sign vague social media releases at the start of the school year. These are challenging for parents who are okay with some types of sharing but not others. What one parent finds funny another might find horrifying.
Last year, parents were outraged after a day care posted a video of their toddler’s horrified reaction to the Easter Bunny. While many people, including Jimmy Kimmel, shared the video thinking it was adorable, the family never gave permission for the school to share the child’s picture. And even if they had permitted some pictures, should the school have had the right to share this one without asking first?
Be firm, but be kind. Friends, family and even sometimes strangers may share your child’s picture without asking first. As frustrating as it may be, take the intent into account and consider having a conversation with that person. You have been thinking through these issues, but unfortunately, many others have not. They may appreciate you bringing it up and may benefit from the conversation.
If the person refuses to remove the picture, perhaps removing the “tag” or the child’s personal information can address your concern. Of course, if an image is truly harmful, you may need to ask the website operator to remove it.
We are all new to this — parents, school administrators, coaches, religious leaders and even us lawyers. There are no clear guidelines to help in our decision-making process. Still, there is one message all adults should heed: When it comes to sharing about children on social media, parents (and when developmentally appropriate, older children) should be the ones giving the okay, and whenever possible, parents should be the ones setting the boundaries.
Stacey Steinberg is a legal skills professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law and the author of the forthcoming book, “Growing Up Shared: How Parents Can Share Smarter on Social Media and What You Can Do to Keep Your Family Safe in a No-Privacy World.” You can connect with Stacey on Twitter.
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