The photos can pop up out of nowhere on apps. In one image, a guy (often white) may be pictured alone. In the next, he’s with young children (usually with brown skin and sometimes half-dressed) and smiling. These images are often missing context.
Maybe he was traveling internationally or doing humanitarian work. Maybe he has a relationship with these children, or maybe he just used them as a photo op. Did the children in the photo know they were to be part of this man’s Internet branding as worldly and multicultural? From a quick swipe on a dating app, a romantic prospect usually has no idea what’s going on.
The Tumblr Humanitarians of Tinder has been collecting such images and sharing them with the wider Internet since 2014. This phenomenon is familiar to Paul C. Brunson, a matchmaker and coach. “Not only is it prevalent on dating sites, but it’s prevalent on all social accounts,” he says, adding that the trend is becoming even more common.
The images are such an issue that two entities, Radi-Aid (a project of the Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund) and Barbie Savior (a satirical Instagram account), rolled out a social media guide for posting responsible travel-related content. “Even though harm is not intended, many volunteers and travelers end up sharing images and text that portray local residents as passive, helpless and pitiful — feeding the stereotypical imagery instead of breaking them down,” the guide notes.
Other organizations such as the Child Rights International Network offer guidelines for sharing images of children. And guidelines are important. About 80 million U.S. residents visited international destinations in 2016, according to the National Travel and Tourism Office. Volunteer programs are “expanding rapidly,” according to the guide’s webpage. Statistics on volunteer tourism can vary, but estimates indicate that more than 1.6 million annual volunteer tourists spend $2 billion globally.
“Men disproportionately do this, and there are more men that are using dating sites today,” Brunson says of the trend. “We’ve realized there’s a premium placed on individuality,” he continues. “For example, 10 years ago, most dating sites allowed for one or maybe two photo uploads. Today, some sites allow for six or more.”
But if you’ve posted even one photo of a minor, particularly in a developing country, you may have created a problem. “In some places … our partners have a policy where volunteers cannot take full-face photos of children,” explains Michele Gran, co-founder of Global Volunteers. “It’s not just the privacy of the children, but it is the security of the children,” she says, noting that kids may be in locations unknown to others in the community, for instance. “Context is everything,” Gran adds. “There’s not enough time on most social media to provide the right type of context.”
But what if you’re trying to show your dedication to volunteering? Or another similarly positive quality?
When I asked one man — listed as a 41-year-old Virginia resident on OkCupid who commented on condition of anonymity — why he’d included a photo of himself surrounded by smiling brown children on what appeared to be a dirt road, he had a simple answer. “I like working with kids and one day would like to have a family and so that is a recent picture of me with some kids,” he wrote of the snap, which he said he’d taken in Sierra Leone.
When others see these photos, their take-aways could be different. “That might raise the question in your mind: ‘Well, what is this guy trying to communicate? Is he exploiting these kids for his own purposes?’ ” Gran says.
Brunson points out that some world travelers are genuinely curious about others — and are doing incredible work abroad — and he applauds those people. But for those who post these photos to make themselves look good, he’s not so approving. “I think it is unethical. I think it is immoral. I think it’s downright nasty for people to post photos on dating sites with children with the express intent of promoting themselves,” Brunson says.
When I asked the Virginia dater, who works in international development, if he’d ever rethink posting his photo in light of potential privacy concerns, he responded that he hadn’t considered that point. He then removed the image because “potentially it could be misinterpreted.”
So, if you’re tempted to post these kinds of photos with kids, don’t. In fact, stick to photos of yourself in general, says dating coach and TV personality Damona Hoffman, who’s based in Los Angeles. “Really be sensitive about using minors in general,” Hoffman says. “There really shouldn’t be any pictures of anyone under 18 on your profile.”
Even posing with adults — abroad or stateside — can be misleading or problematic. “It brings up privacy issues for the other person in your photo. It also creates a point of comparison that you do not need,” Hoffman adds. “The focus should be you.”
If you’re still intent on highlighting your volunteer efforts, for instance, ask program staff for their advice on what you can shoot and consider just showing the work you did rather than the people involved. Or briefly mention the experience in your profile.
“You have to treat the people that you’re helping like people and not like objects,” Hoffman says. “They’re not props for your photo.”
Unfortunately, a person’s values — a key way to assess a good match — are hard to convey in images. “They don’t show up in words,” Brunson says. “Values show up in action.”
So make sure your online actions reflect your true intentions — and that you don’t dishonor or endanger the people you meet along the way.