IT begins with parents posting online a photo of a shadowy ultra-sound.
The cyber-chronicling of a child’s beauty, accomplishments and adorable antics begins before they have even been born. The next decade is a highly personal record of grinning albums of Kodak moments shared to family and friends on social-networking sites (SNSs).
Parents’ grand-standing of children’s achievements is well understood, but what about cherishing privacy, guarding a child’s dignity and building their confidence? How will your child feel about your ‘digital branding’ of them without their knowledge or consent? Do they deserve a clean digital slate on which to write their own story? ‘Charlie bit my finger’ might remain a quaint, viral classic, but what about the infant-tantrum videos regularly uploaded to Youtube, which reveal a child at their most ridiculous and vulnerable?
We should think first about predators on the internet, who might use our images to find our child or contact our child, and how the images might be rebranded for a dark purpose.
What is suitable for public consumption? Some ‘mom-agers’ go to excruciating lengths to market their children’s all-singing and all-dancing talents, presuming fame and success are just a matter of sufficient, well-produced exposure.
Posting or sharing pictures of other people’s children has long been a finger-wagging no-no on all SNSs. In the US, there is fury about it. Two states, Georgia and New Jersey, are working to make it illegal for anyone other than a parent to even photograph a minor.
The unknowns of the new world of the ‘virtual self’ have led to the rise of a new area of research, cyber-psychology. Mary Aiken, RCSI director of CyberPsychology Research Centre and adviser at the European Cyber Crime Centre, at Europol, recommends caution.
“Parents or caregivers should be very aware of cyber-security and cyber-safety issues, when posting images of their children online. Photographs taken with digital devices can contain hidden meta data (time, date, location, device etc). This data can be cracked and may place the chid at risk.”
Even if we remove these meta threats and tighten up our SNS privacy settings, a picture or video, once shared online, can, with a few indiscreet clicks by family or friends, become public property.
What about the content we edit and post that features our hapless children? Facebook, like Instagram, has a good record in moderating the appearance of even an infant’s bare bottom, but indiscreet talk and wry teasing is not likely to be reported or deleted.
The post-surgery anaesthesia video has become a YouTube blockbuster up-loaded by parents from the hospital, or while driving their ‘stoned’ children home after minor surgery. ‘David after Dentist’ (2008) proved such a viral smash that his parents were able to cash in with the sale of T-shirts.
This is the soft end of parents’ excited exploitation of the moment, and tantrum videos are a regular favourite on the channel. ‘I want my iPad’ is one of a series by the Brooks family, and spawned legions of copy-cat docu-dramas available to view by anyone, and presumably floating around on the worldwide web forever.
In the Eircom Household Sentiment Survey IV, published in March, only 5% of Irish parents admitted to over-sharing information about their children to the point of annoying online friends. However, 35% said sharing “strengthened bonds with family and friends”.
Clinical psychologist David Coleman, who worked on the survey, found this result contradictory.
“What is particularly interesting to see is the number of people in denial. The fact that we all see this, on a daily basis, means that there are almost certainly more than 5% of ‘sharenters’ out there — they just don’t realise, or admit, that they are doing it.”
Will cheerfully publishing this enduring legacy influence their future? What about those more motivated parents, who present their children as minor celebrities in the making? Coleman considers the potential impact on adult relationships of too much information.
“Parents have always talked about their children and most other parents are usually happy to trade tales of their children’s exploits, so ‘sharenting’ isn’t unexpected,” he says. “But, like with face-to-face chats, some folk will be more interested in the ups and downs of your children’s lives than others. When we share online, though, the rest of our network doesn’t get a choice but to receive.
“Think of the negative reaction from a proportion of iTunes users who felt a U2 album was foisted upon them, then think again about whether everyone wants to know if your child did their first poo in the toilet.”
Dr Brian O’Neill, of Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT), is a leading researcher in children’s interaction with the internet and other media. Chair of the government’s Internet Content Governance Advisory Group, he is also head of Ireland’s EU Kids Online network and says that older children value their privacy.
“As smartphones and tablets become more ubiquitous, the tendency is to create and share more and more digital content, but with this comes a ‘netiquette’ of when and how it is appropriate to do so.
“Kids do seem to get this and evidence shows that they are taking steps to be more protective of their privacy — the claim that teens don’t care about privacy doesn’t stand up — and are more circumspect about what they share.
“A basic rule of thumb is never to post or tag without permission, and only to share within circles of family or friends, as appropriate.”
Aiken is also in favour of parents setting digital boundaries for their activities online.
“It really comes down to personal choice as to how much parents decide to share their children’s lives online. However, I would advise parents to think carefully about the content they post — will their child be happy to have all of their ‘digital exhaust’ available online in the future?”
The potential for this digital exhaust coming back to choke a child’s self-worth, and later career opportunities, is fuelling passionate argument, not least in the US media.
Would a potential partner or scrupulous future employer put weight in blushing exposures and records of naive adolescent romps? Teenagers, their friends, and siblings appear to take ritual pleasure in humiliating themselves, and others, in picture and video posts, but many adult bloggers routinely send up their family’s failings. Using social media as a brutally honest diary of good and bad days as a parent? Probably not a good idea.
Like many parents, I do put my 10-year-old daughter’s photographs on Facebook (and some are shared directly from sports’ group pictures) — inane, smiling, boasting posts and guarded by privacy settings. But she has started to hover at my shoulder and edit, with low mutters and the odd high pitched yell of objection, what I post.
I now ask her permission to publish, and accept her judgement if something is deemed in her opinion ‘stupid’ or ‘silly’. The postings are now few and far between, and I have had to ask myself if some posts are born from some insecure place within myself, as a parent.
Social networking between children starts young, very young, and with that comes heightened awareness.
According to EU Kids Online (2011), the pan-European survey of nine- to-16 year-olds’, 38% of nine- to 12-year-olds already have their own profile on a social-networking site.
It appears that the unfettered access of young children (under 13) to social networking and inappropriate content, through fully enabled smartphones, is creating a far more toxic result than any misguided post by their guardians.
In my daughter’s school, the pressure is on, from third class forward, to get a fully internet-enabled smartphone and the majority of parents I’ve spoken to appear happy to bless the confirmed child with this ultimate pre-teen prize.
Children or adults, we seem unable to resist the pull to validate, celebrate, and occasionally disgrace ourselves, and those we love, on a public forum.
From what age does a child deserve consideration for their privacy online? O’Neill’s colleague at DIT, post-doctoral researcher, Dr Thuy Dinh, is working on a project entitled ‘Digital Childhoods’, and is emphatic.
“It doesn’t matter how young children are. It can start from age zero, if parents decided to post pictures/videos of their own children on any SNS or websites. Parents should take responsibility and be aware of the risks they may encounter.”
Our government is navigating the new waters of cyber-bullying, and age-appropriate internet content, with plans s to protect what we all value most — our children.
However, there remains that area of parental honour and responsibility that we surely must chart for ourselves, before we mire our children’s self-esteem in judgment and ridicule, or, worse still, increase their visibility to child predators.
The ICG Advisory Group Report, chaired by Brian O’Neill, of DIT, has just been published, and you can find it at www.dcenr.gov.ie/broadcasting/ICG
Tips for parents
Do not post pictures, or information, on the internet that might compromise your child now, or compromise their career in the future.
Don’t post semi-nude or nude pictures of your baby, toddler or child.
Only post pictures and videos online you would be happy for your group of friends to share on their Facebook timeline, or elsewhere. In the community of the social network, a private photo album works best.
You don’t have to use your children’s full, or even real, names. This provides some anonymity.
If you want to know if you or yours have a perceptible digital footprint — try Googling your children’s names.
Use hack-proof passwords. Don’t use family names, avoid full dictionary words and add numbers to the words.
As your children get older, you can discover the internet together. This can include asking children if they are comfortable for you to share family snaps in a limited community.
Facebook, Twitter and Flickr have custom privacy settings, but they are little understood. Get to know them, up-date your settings regularly, and ensure your shots are not ‘tagged’ and shared. Be selective about your friends online.
Do not ever publish or share pictures or videos of other people’s children without their consent. Be prepared to crop their face from digital party pictures, if asked.
Use an iWatermark app to ensure your pictures are not apprehended and used elsewhere (available at iTunes).
Turn off the ‘location’ service when taking pictures on your internet-enabled mobile device.
Never post the name of your child with their birth dates, school, address (or email), or telephone number.
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