When my son searches for his name online, one of the first things that pops up is a story from our local newspaper documenting his birth. When he was younger, he thought it was neat that his picture and name made it into the local paper. These days he couldn’t care less about the article, and is instead focused on creating his own online presence.
As he does that, though, will his own posts and achievements take precedence on Google’s search result algorithm? Or will he enter adulthood with the digital footprint I created when he was an infant?
I’ve spent much of the past four years researching “sharenting,” or the intersection of a parent’s right to share and a child’s right to control his digital footprint. I’ve explored the legal options that could be available to children who think their parents shared too much, and I’ve set forth best practices that parents might want to consider before sharing about their children online. I’ve also worked with pediatrician Bahareh Keith, discussing the pediatrician’s role in helping parents make well-informed sharenting choices. Yet even for parents with the best of intentions, children might one day come to resent that they shared anything — positive or negative — online.
Some would argue that this means parents should stop all sharing online. For many parents, this is a viable option. But just as children have a right to privacy, in the United States, parents also have a First Amendment right to free speech and in most cases, a right to control how their children are brought up. This means that as a society, we value letting parents make decisions about how to raise their kids. To that end, we also value giving parents control over how they share about their kids online.
There is value in sharing our stories — whether it is to build community, connect with distant family and friends, or exchange medical concerns and parenting solutions. Moms and dads certainly benefit from sharing about their families online. If parents stopped sharing, their children might have control over their digital footprint, but parents would lose some control over how they interact with the outside world.
Balancing these competing interests isn’t easy. But there could be a way to acknowledge a parent’s right to share, while protecting a child’s right to control the information that is out there about them.
The solution might lie in European doctrine known as “the right to be forgotten.”
As Amy Gajda, a law professor, explains in “Privacy, Press, and the Right to Be Forgotten in the United States,” under the right to be forgotten, European courts have recognized that individuals can, in certain circumstances, ask Google to hide results from their search algorithms. It is applicable if the person can show that the information no longer has value to society or relevance to the individual’s current identity.
The right to be forgotten recognizes that over time, some information shared about an individual loses its value, and becomes secondary to the person’s privacy. When children are small and parents talk about them online, a parent’s right to speech is likely stronger than the child’s interest in privacy. The parent benefits from the sharing by building relationships, getting advice and describing experiences. But when the child gets older, his right to privacy is probably stronger, and he would benefit from being able to control who sees his pictures and knows about his life.
Today’s 12-year-old was born before Facebook became ubiquitous. Yet a 10-year-old probably had their birth announced on Facebook before parents called distant relatives and friends. Our children (of every age) are growing up on our social media feeds, and they are counting on us to protect their digital footprints as they take their own first steps online and into adulthood. Medical professionals, media experts, attorneys and policymakers must work together to support families coming of age under the watchful eyes of our social media news feeds. We have strong First Amendment protections in the United States that might preclude our courts from adopting such doctrine, but the right to be forgotten could offer families the balance we all seek.
Stacey Steinberg is a legal skills professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law and an associate director of the college’s Center on Children and Families. Follow her on Twitter at @sgsteinberg or connect with her at staceysteinberg.com.
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