It becomes almost routine: Snap a picture of the kids, crop and edit it, share it on Facebook. Repeat.
Posting pictures of kids on social media has become a fixture of modern parenting. Helicopter parents, free-range parents, even soon-to-be parents are sharing everything online. While our connected culture makes it easier to stay close to friends and family, it also makes it easier for data thieves and predators to take advantage of our well-intentioned efforts to nurture our relationships and grow our social networks.
We must ask: Is it just our friends applauding our kids’ efforts in the crusade to end gun violence, or are nameless people sitting at faraway computers creating profiles of our social justice warriors?
Are these same data thieves taking note of how old our kids are, and will they pay attention to our child’s favorite places to visit?
For many of us, these questions are both perplexing and sobering. We’ve been so focused over the past few weeks wondering whether our own online data is safe, but have we put our kids at risk?
Luckily, our research shows that there are a few simple steps you can take to protect your children’s privacy online. These tips won’t fully keep your family safe from predators and data thieves; unfortunately, there isn’t a vaccine for that just yet. However, they can give your kids a bit of protection as you continue to stay connected online.
Double and triple check your privacy settings. Double check that you know the audience of each of your posts. You can share pictures with everyone, with your friends and their friends, with just your friends, or even with a smaller group of close friends. It’s also wise to see which apps have access to your information. You can easily limit this by reviewing your privacy settings on both the app and desktop site of Facebook.
Avoid posting your child’s full name on Facebook and think twice before sharing their birth date. We all like to post a caption when we share pictures on social media. It helps our friends and family appreciate where the picture was taken, or what was going through our mind in the moment we’re capturing. Wishing our children happy birthday online is a sweet gesture and a nice reminder for their uncle to call them, but is it worth giving away the most important identifying information? Unfortunately, this shares identifying information about our kids with people who might wish to do them harm.
In their paper “Children Seen But Not Heard: When Parents Compromise Children’s Online Privacy,” researchers at New York University were able to identify names and birthdays for children on a parent’s Facebook page by applying age detection software programs to a parent’s public Facebook pictures. “We find that for a large number of parents, one can learn the names and faces of their children; for many children, one can learn their birth dates. By linking this information with publicly available data, one can obtain even more vivid profiles of young children,” the study reported. When this information is paired with other publicly available information, the researchers found that one could obtain the child’s addresses and even the parent’s political affiliations.
Don’t post naked pictures of your kids. Bath time photos are super cute. But there is also an underground network thriving on your willingness to share these adorable yet sometimes overly personal snapshots. In Australia, for example, the E Safety commissioner found that of all images on pedophile image sharing sites, half originated on parents’ social media sites and blogs. It’s unfortunate, but pedophiles search for these images. If you overshare these pictures, they could end up in very dangerous hands.
Tell friends, family, school and community organizations about your sharing preferences. One of the most common complaints I hear about oversharing on Facebook comes from concerned parents whose children’s pictures and data were shared by third parties, without their consent. It happened this week — and the story made national news. The parents are outraged, and, unfortunately, while they might find a legal remedy, it’s unlikely the video will ever truly disappear.
It’s tempting to just delete Facebook and vow to only share pictures of our kids with our significant others and grandparents, or you could do it the old-fashioned way, through mail or direct email or text. But that could make it much more difficult for many who rely on social media to stay connected with family and friends. We have lots of questions, and a long way to go to fully protect our children’s privacy online. But these tips can serve as a place to start. Even without all the answers, we must do our best to protect our children’s data now.
The threat posed by those wishing to do our children harm is too great a risk to take.
Stacey Steinberg is a legal skills professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law in Gainesville, where she also serves as an associate director of the Center on Children and Families. She can be reached through her website, staceysteinberg.com. You can also follow Stacey on Facebook or Twitter.
Bahareh Keith is a pediatrician at Randall Children’s Hospital at Legacy Health in Portland, Ore. She also holds a courtesy appointment at the University of Florida Pediatrics. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, news and updates. You can sign up here for our weekly newsletter. We tweet @On Parenting and have a Facebook discussion page about parenting and working. Join us.