What is theirs and what do parents own? (Stacey Steinberg)

As parents, we often question how parenting in the age of social media affects us. We worry that by constantly posting status updates, we aren’t living in the moment. We are warned not to compare ourselves to other parents in our news feed. I’m starting to wonder if we’ve been focusing too much on the impact social media has on our own lives and maybe we should focus instead on how social media affects the lives of our children.

Should we allow our children some control over their digital footprint?

As a children’s rights advocate, photographer and mom, this question haunts me. I bring it up when discussing child rearing with friends and family. I casually slide it into conversations with child welfare and constitutional law experts. I am fascinated by debates centered at the intersection of parent/child rights, an issue that is not limited to social media and online sharing. The law has tried to balance the competing interests of parents and their children for generations.

Where does a parent’s right to control the upbringing of the child end and a child’s right to some semblance of a private life begin?

As a mother, I am guilty of at times over-sharing even the most mundane of parenting experiences. My oldest son was born just a year before I signed up for my Facebook account. His life has been the highlight reel of my news feed and my news feed contains more milestones than I’ve written about in his baby book. My son’s images plaster the walls of my virtual cloud, a place he is only beginning to know even exists. But as my son enters an age where he can express an opinion about his digital footprint, I am starting to think about these issues a little deeper. Armed with a law degree and a passion for juvenile law, I can’t help but wonder if my social media habits will one day be outlined in legal casebooks and social science research.

HIPPA prohibits medical professionals from sharing personal information about patients without written consent. FERPA requires teachers and administrators to protect the privacy of a student’s educational records. Delinquency statutes protect some juvenile records from public disclosure. Societal norms encourage us to use restraint before publicly sharing personal information about our friends and family. But nothing stops a parent from sharing their children’s embarrassing or private stories with the virtual world.

Article 16 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Children grants children a right to privacy. The United States signed this document, but the U.S. is the only United Nations member country not to have ratified it. I am not saying that simply ratifying this document will (or should) grant a child control over their parent’s Facebook feed, but I wonder if we owe it to our children to think more about this issue.

Should we ask our older children for permission before posting their picture online? I recognize that children are unable to fully understand the consequences of over-sharing in the virtual world. As their parents, we have a responsibility to protect their online identity. When our children one day learn of the personal stories we’ve shared, will we find ourselves asking them for forgiveness?

As a photographer, I often feature families who have struggled through complex medical circumstances on my photography page. Recently, these stories were featured on The Huffington Post. I stand by my decision to publish the images. These human experiences raise awareness for important social issues and help solicit funding for important medical research. When struggling families share openly, others similarly situated gain support and knowledge. Not only do families in similar circumstances benefit, but we all have the opportunity to deeply connect with one another and recognize the rich diversity in society.

In the 1800s, children were seen as the property of their parents. Since that time, we’ve learned so much about childhood development. Sometime between the birth of Facebook and the coming of age of my son, I’ve started thinking about myself as the protector of my children’s digital identity. I am still learning how to balance this role with my desire to share my own story.

Unlike parents of the future, I don’t have the benefit of research, data, or even case law to guide my decisions. This is the parenting issue of our generation and the conversation is only just beginning. As we think through these issues, perhaps we should invite our children to join in the discussion.

Stacey Steinberg is a legal skills professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. She is also a lifestyle photographer and a mom. You can read more of Stacey’s writing on her blog, StaceySteinberg.com or view Stacey’s photography on Facebook.

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