Aug. 25 marks the first day of school in districts across the country, which means — for parent-friending Facebook and Twitter users among us — the first day in a month-long torrent of back-to-school photos.
#Kindergarten trended on Twitter nationwide this morning. Hundreds of photos tagged “first day of school” have surfaced on Flickr since late last night, with hundreds more sure to follow as proud parents offload their memory cards.
This is all well and good — and, in most cases, adorable. But as thousands of parents surrendered images of their toothy, pony-tailed offspring to the open Web, it also evoked a long-raging, and inconclusive, debate: Should parents ever post pictures of their children online?
Like most parental questions, of course, there’s really no clear choice.
In one camp are parents such as digital strategist Amy Webb, who — in an essay for Slate in September — vowed to never post so much as the name of her daughter online, out of fear that facial recognition software and search engines would forcibly forge her an identity she would regret as an adult. She’s joined by many a child safety advocate and mommy blogger, who also fret, in no particular order, about child pornography, fraud and embedded location data that could tell viewers not only what your child looks like, but where he or she is.
In the other corner are people such as Salon’s Andrew Leonard, who dismissed Webb’s critique as moralizing and hypersensitive — and who advocates posting frequent stories and photos about one’s kids. At present, it would appear that many parents are in that camp: After all, this is 2014. More than half of American Internet users have posted original photos online. Adult children are increasingly Facebook-friends with their parents (and, presumably, other relatives) — which makes the platform an ideal place to trade family photos and news.
And yet … just because this is our digital reality, doesn’t mean we should unquestioningly embrace it. So let’s consider the risks and arguments in a little more detail.
Risk 1: Unsavory elements find/download your child’s picture.
This is, needless to say, the absolute worst-case scenario — and it’s also, thankfully, the one you should worry about least. Experts from groups such as the Family Online Safety Institute and the Crimes Against Children Research Center told the New York Times that predators don’t typically pursue children after seeing their photos online. There is, sadly, enough more explicit material going around that predators don’t have to scout out photos on Facebook.
What to do: Stop watching “To Catch a Predator.” That said, think very carefully about the type of images you post — potty-training or baths should perhaps be off-limits.
Risk 2: Someone misappropriates your child’s picture/identity.
This is a legitimate risk, much as it is for anyone posting photos and personal information online. There’s no doubt, however, that the issue becomes even more concerning when a child’s identity is at play. For one thing, it’s exceedingly creepy to see your child passed off as someone else’s, as happened to the blogger behind De Su Mama last year. (“This is a nightmare,” she wrote at the time.)
Equally important: If someone, say, registers a credit card in your child’s name, it’s likely that you won’t discover the fraud until you get collections calls or a notice from the IRS — few people check their minor children’s credit reports the way they check their own. (On a more cheering note, few identity thieves steal a child’s identity without the Social Security number.)
What to do: If you want to limit who sees your child — limit who sees your child. Don’t tweet her picture out on a public Twitter account, where anyone can see it. Lock down the privacy settings on your Facebook account, so that if you share photos or other information with close friends or family, you know that those are the only people accessing them. Of course, if none of this bothers you, continue publicly tweeting away. But in either case, never share personal information such as your child’s Social Security number or birth date — no matter how old she is.
Risk 3: Your child, when he grows up, inherits an entire digital history he never made/wanted.
This, perhaps, is the most damning concern — and the one that people like Webb worry about most. We already know that employers, college admissions officers and potential prom dates rely on Google to scout a candidate’s background. If that trend continues (and there’s nothing to suggest it won’t), then today’s children will face even more digital scrutiny as adults. Maybe a search on her name will turn up nothing but adorable back-to-school pictures; maybe it will turn up horror stories, like the one penned by Liza Long — who, in a controversial and much-circulated blog post, compared her mentally ill 13-year-old to Adam Lanza and Dylan Klebold.
In either case, the anti-posters argue, both basically amount to the same thing: a parent creating a child’s permanent digital identity when that child should rightfully get to determine it himself or herself. Research backs up the assumption that teens want to control their own information online: A recent report by the Family Online Safety Institute found that 76 percent of teens are “very or somewhat concerned” about their online privacy.
There are more insidious forces at work here, too, a point that Webb makes in her essay for Slate. Advertisers and tech companies are increasingly mining our digital identities, including our photos, for intimate information about our personal habits and social interactions, among many other things. Facebook’s facial recognition software is already as accurate as the human brain. We simply don’t know what it will be capable of in a decade.
What to do: If you’re worried about eternally tying your child to your posts, consider not using his (or your) full name — particularly if you’re sharing a very personal story. If you’re worried about facial recognition, go further: Don’t post any images that clearly show his or her face.
These decisions will vary by parent and household, of course — there’s no one prescriptive way to use the Internet, whether you’re a parent or anybody else. But the bottom line, as always, is this: Everything you post on the public Web is viewable and shareable by any and everyone, and it could reverberate or resurface many years after you post it, in contexts you never intended.
Regardless of who you are or how you Internet, that’s a pretty salient takeaway.