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Schools and other organizations are sharing more about kids online. Here’s what parents can do to protect them.

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Last month my daughter came home from school full of excitement. “I am artist of the week,” she shared with me proudly. She is my youngest of three, and I knew what that meant. Having roamed the halls of my children’s elementary school countless times over the past decade, I knew that her artwork was likely to be on display in the hallway for all to admire.

Well, for almost all to admire.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, I would have stood hand-in-hand with my daughter in front of the art display as I walked her to class in the morning. She would proudly have pointed out the details of her creation, and I would have taken a picture of it to share with her grandparents.

But like so many other aspects of life in the age of the pandemic, things have changed. In many schools, parents no longer walk through the halls. In fact, many students are not walking through the school halls. Creative bulletin boards and special recognitions in hallways may remain displayed for the students who are present on campus, but they are almost always invisible to the parents who use to pass by with pride.

The community of supportive neighbors and peers who would have seen my daughter’s artwork in the hallway a year ago does not exist now. To re-create it, some schools and organizations are turning to social media to share our children’s accomplishments digitally. But in our effort to create online communities during the pandemic, are we putting children’s privacy at risk?

Pre-pandemic, parents often asked me if schools, clubs, sports teams (and grandparents) could share pictures of children without first getting their parent’s consent. The moral answer is pretty clear — anyone sharing information online about a child should get the parent’s consent first.

But even with this moral clarity, the legal answer isn’t always clear. The pandemic has amplified these concerns and issues related to private apps and websites collecting a child’s personal data. For example, many schools utilize online websites and apps to help kids learn, behave, and participate in classroom activities. It’s not only the school and family that stood to gain from the use of these apps ― the company (and anyone they shared data with) could gain valuable information about a child as well.

These small data points being shared by schools add up. In their paper, “The Datafied Child: The Dataveillance of Children and Implications for Their Rights,” Deborah Lupton and Ben Williamson write, “children are monitored not only by commercial companies when they log into software, but also their personal health, well-being and education details are tracked by government agencies from early infancy until they start work. The idea is to use these big datasets to contribute to educational policy.” For example, when kids use an electronic debit card to purchase lunch, a record is created tracking their food choices. This could be helpful if it is used without personal identifiers to align a nutrition curriculum with a school’s real-world experience. But it could be harmful if it is shared with third parties who may one day evaluate that child’s risk for obesity or health issues.

As the pandemic causes so many of us to embrace technology just to get by, parents worry about protecting their children when they play Roblox or go on YouTube at home. We’ve generally trusted schools and organizations to have sound policies about protecting children’s privacy when they are the ones providing the instruction and supervision to our kids. But like parents struggling to best protect kids online, these third parties are often struggling as well. In fact, the risk of a child’s privacy being placed at risk has caused some schools to forego platforms like Zoom. For some parents, this is a relief, but others crave the interaction these platforms offer.

What is a parent — and what is a school, religious organization, or sports team to do? Schools must follow the federal education privacy law FERPA, which precludes them in many instances from sharing information about kids with third parties. This is a complex and challenging area of law for schools to apply in an age of constant connectivity. It probably does not apply to other organizations who are at times tasked with supervising our kids.

Jodi Bennett Hunt, co-owner and marketing director of a sports and after-school-care facility, has dealt with these issues firsthand. As a parent and business owner concerned with protecting the privacy of children in her gym, she was concerned about these issues before the pandemic. “Covid has made these issues more complicated, as most parents now aren’t permitted inside the gym. We want to make sure families stay connected and involved in their children’s activities, and we have created innovative ways to keep them involved from outside the facility. No online platform can be totally safe, but we work hard to share in ways that minimize risk.”

Ideally parents would be able to protect their family with clear policies from local, state and national laws. We are not there yet. There are states with better privacy laws than others, and there are federal lawmakers who are committed to creating stronger nationwide privacy policies, as has been done in other countries. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child recently adopted a new “Comment” that protects children’s rights online, but the United States is not a signatory.

Most parents love for their child’s baseball team to highlight their child’s winning home run on the team Facebook page. Many would be grateful if their child’s artwork were shared on a school website. In my years of studying children’s privacy online, I have seen firsthand how torn parents can be about how to best protect their kids online and also how judgmental others can be of parental decisions in how they ultimately chose to do so. I have concluded that the answers are not always clear-cut. What is clear is a need for more frequent and nuanced conversations.

Until U.S. laws catch up with technology, parents can rely on other tools to help them protect their children’s online information. We can make sure our preferences — and our children’s preferences — are known to our communities. Have a conversation with your family and develop a personalized family privacy policy. Share this with schools, babysitters, grandparents, religious organizations and sports teams. Consider using Google alerts (or a similar program) so that you get a notification any time your name or your child’s name is mentioned online. This could allow you to request deletion of information you do not want in the public sphere. Encourage your child’s extracurricular activities to allow families to monitor progress via private viewing apps like SpotTV instead of public YouTube Channels.

Perhaps most important, ask schools, sports teams, clubs and religious organizations if they have policies regarding social media sharing. If they do not yet, encourage leadership to create one. By doing so, you are not only helping your kids, but you are raising the issue so that all parents can be empowered to protect their kids online.

Should a school share a photo of the spelling bee winner accepting her trophy? Is it appropriate for a religious group to post a video of the kids singing during services? Hopefully, parents and community leaders will come together to thoughtfully think through these questions together, with input from privacy experts, children and the many others who have information to offer and an interest in how we share in our connected world. While the pandemic has amplified these issues, the risk existed before the first positive coronavirus case and will probably remain an important parenting concern for many years to come.

Stacey Steinberg is the director of the University of Florida Levin College of Law’s Center on Children and Families, where she also serves as the supervising attorney for the Gator TeamChild Juvenile Law Clinic. She is the author of the 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.”

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