Parenting in the Digital Age: The Risks We Take When We Post Our Kids Online

by | Nov 16, 2023 | Digital Parenting

More often than not these days, even before a baby is born, they have a presence on social media. Parents post about the pregnancy, share ultrasound pics, and talk about their journey on Instagram and Facebook. By the time we hit the birth announcement, our social network may have been waiting for the announcement. 

Fast forward, and we’re sharing monthly updates, first steps, and the adorable mispronunciations of a toddler. For many of us, social media has become our go-to for keeping a digital memory book of our kids’ lives. There can even be an expectation of oversharing when we expect our friends to update us through social media. 

It feels like just sharing memories, right? But what’s really at stake when we create this online memory album for our kids?

This is where the lines start to get blurry, and why so many parents in the digital age are starting to feel nervous about sharing their children’s lives online, but not quite sure what to do about it. 

It’s pretty widely understood that unmonitored internet use can be dangerous for teenagers. In the last decade, there’s been a lot of research on how to best monitor teenager’s online activity and how to (try) and protect them from predators. That research is more focused on how to safeguard the digital footprint that older children are creating for themselves.

But what about the digital footprint we, as parents, are creating for our children?

What happens we we post about our kids online?

Does anything even happen, or are we just over-anxious millennial parents finding yet another thing to worry about?

On one side, sharing our children’s lives online springs from a place of pride and joy. It’s about letting friends and family in on the significant part of our lives that we cherish deeply. This sharing, rooted in genuine emotion, fosters a sense of community and shared happiness.

Yet, there’s another side to this story. The risks associated with sharing about our kids online are not only real but are escalating with the advancements in technology and artificial intelligence. Social media has evolved significantly since its inception, raising serious concerns about online predators and the ethical implications of invading our children’s privacy.

As the digital landscape continues to shift, so too do the challenges we face in preserving our children’s safety and privacy. It’s a balance between our experiences as parents and navigating the potential hazards that come with the territory of modern social media and the World Wide Web. 

A question worth considering if you’re a parent or caregiver of a child: where do I draw the line between sharing my experience online as a parent with friends and family and my child’s right to privacy?

Honestly, talking about online safety for our children can feel overwhelming. There’s a lot of worry floating around, and don’t we already have enough to worry about as parents?

Here’s the bottom line: investigative child safety experts are urging parents to start thinking about their child’s digital footprint as early as possible. And the resounding advice they’re giving? 

The less you post about your kids online, the better.

Before we continue, I want to be super clear about something: I’m not writing this to give you one more thing to worry about or to tell you what to do. Instead, I want to help demystify some of the risks involved with sharing about our lives and offer suggestions of ways to share our lives more safely in this exponentially evolving digital age.

From there, you get to decide what’s right for you and your family.

And so, in this context of cautious sharing, it becomes essential to understand what we mean by a ‘digital footprint.’ Just as physical footprints can show paths we’ve walked, digital footprints are the tracks we leave online.

What is a Digital Footprint?

A digital footprint refers is the trail of data you leave behind while using the internet. It includes the websites you visit, the emails you send and open up, the information you submit to online services, and more. In essence, it’s the digital “paper trail” or traces of your online activities. Sometimes we’re aware of this data being collected, and sometimes, data is being collected without realizing it. Our digital footprints online can have permanent consequences because of something called online permanence.

There are three main types of digital footprints you can leave behind:

  1. Active Digital Footprint: This involves the data you deliberately leave behind, like when you post and interact on social media, write on a forum, or leave online reviews. It includes all the content you contribute and the data you provide while creating accounts or making transactions online.
  2. Passive Digital Footprint: This is generated when data is collected about you without your direct input. It includes things like your IP address, your browsing history, and even the data collected by cookies — small data files stored on your computer by websites you visit. Passive footprints are often collected without the user being fully aware of it.
  3. Secondary/Indirect Digital Footprint: When parents share information, photos, or videos of their children online, they are contributing to their child’s digital footprint. This footprint can include details about the child’s daily life, milestones, personal experiences, and sometimes, sensitive information.

When we ask about safe posting online, we have to look at the implications of starting an indirect digital footprint when we share information about others online, with or without their permission. More specifically, we need to understand the potential risks that can happen when we leave an indirect digital footprint for our children.

The Risks of Sharing an Indirect Digital Footprint for Children, At a Glance:

In the digital age, every post, picture, or mention creates an indirect digital footprint for our children, one that they might inherit without their consent. Here are the key risks at a glance:

  • Privacy at Risk: Once shared, you lose control over where and how this information travels.

  • Misuse of Content: With technological advancements, the tactics of criminals and child predators evolve, putting innocent shared content at risk of misuse.

  • Future Impact: What we share could shape perceptions among peers, impact social interactions, and even influence future employers.

  • Security Concerns: Posting locations or routines can inadvertently expose your family to physical risks beyond the screen.

  • Online Permanence: The internet rarely forgets. Content shared online can be nearly impossible to erase completely.

We need to weigh the desire to document every moment against the potential cost to our child’s privacy and safety. Let’s break this down a little more. In my research, these 10 risks of online posting stood out to me the most.

10 Risks We Take When Posting About Our Children Online

1. Exploitation

When parents share personal identifying information (PII), like birth announcements with full names, birth dates, or first-day-of-school photos, they may be unknowingly providing ammunition for criminals. This exploitation is not a distant threat; it’s a present danger increasing every year. 

In 2022, NCMEC’s Cybertipline received more than 32 million reports of suspected child sexual exploitation online. According to a 2020 report by the Internet Watch Foundation, a significant portion of child sexual abuse material is initially sourced from social media. Sometimes, seemingly harmless and innocent moments we post about our children can be twisted for nefarious purposes.

Beyond the alarming statistics of child sexual abuse imagery online, exploitation extends to other areas. Children’s images or information can be used inappropriately in advertising, or manipulated in harmful ways, which brings us to the next related risk: predators and scams. 

2. Predators and Scams

Innocuous photos can attract predators or scam artists, and seemingly innocent photos of children can be stolen and contorted for exploitative use. While we may not often know when photos are stolen, the lack of control over these images is concerning. The ease of facial recognition technology, like Google’s reverse image search, amplifies this risk, making our children’s images searchable and exploitable. 

The risk of predators extends beyond physical harm. Online grooming, where predators build emotional connections with children to exploit them, often starts with accessing publicly shared information found online. The Office of the Children’s Commissioner in the UK reported an increasing number of grooming cases, emphasizing how easily predators can use shared information to gain a child’s trust.

3. Identity & Data Theft

Personal information on social media can lead to identity theft. Basic details like full names and birthdays are valuable to identity thieves. Data breaches on social platforms are not uncommon. For example, in 2021, Facebook reported a leak affecting over 500 million users, exposing the risks involved in sharing personal information.

The impact of identity theft extends beyond immediate financial loss. It can lead to a complex web of problems, including credit issues, legal complications, and emotional distress. The Federal Trade Commission reported a considerable increase in identity theft reports involving children, highlighting how seemingly innocent information can be misused. 

4. Cyberbullying

Content shared about children can become fodder for cyberbullying. In an era where school and social stress are already high, adding the anxiety of an online reputation managed by someone else can be detrimental to a child’s mental and emotional well-being.

The impacts of cyberbullying can be profound. According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, children who are victims of cyberbullying have higher risks of academic problems, substance abuse, and mental health issues. Parents sharing content about their children might unknowingly contribute material that could be used in bullying.

5. Invasion of Privacy

Children are unable to consent to having their lives shared online, especially when they’re too young to understand the implications. As they grow, they may feel embarrassed or violated by the digital trail left behind. This highlights the issue of online permanence, where what’s shared can stay online indefinitely.

As children grow, their discomfort with their online presence may also increase. A study by the University of Michigan found that children as young as 10 felt concerned and sometimes embarrassed by what parents shared about them online. This can lead to conflict or feelings of mistrust between parents and their children.

6. Losing Control of Your Images

Even with privacy settings in place, control over shared images and information is limited. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, 83% of social media users have connections to people they don’t personally know, increasing the risk of images being misused. Additionally, hacking incidents can lead to a loss of control over these images.

This issue of control also intersects with legal ambiguities. While parents typically have the right to post photos of their children, complications can arise in cases of custody disputes or lack of boundaries from other family members. This lack of legal clarity further complicates the control parents have over shared content.

7. Digital Kidnapping

Digital kidnapping, where someone takes images of your children and pretends they are their own, is a disturbing reality. This can range from creating fake profiles with your child’s photos to more severe cases of identity theft and fraud.

Digital kidnapping can extend to creating entire online personas using a child’s image, leading to psychological impacts on both the child and family. The BBC reported cases where parents found their children’s images being used to narrate fictional lives on other users’ profiles, causing distress and confusion.

8. Lack of Legislation

There’s a significant gap in legislation concerning data protection on social media. Many apps and services, especially those linked through platforms like Facebook, have extensive access to personal data. The transparency and usage of this data by third parties remain concerning areas with limited regulatory oversight.

This lack of legislation extends internationally. Different countries have varying degrees of data protection laws, leaving gaps in how children’s data is managed globally. According to a report by the World Economic Forum, inconsistent data privacy laws across borders create challenges in ensuring children’s digital safety.

9. Artificial Intelligence and Facial Recognition Software

Facial recognition technology, now integrated into common platforms like iPhones and Facebook, makes it easier to search for people based on their images. This technological advancement poses a unique risk for children, whose images might make them easily searchable online.

The risks associated with facial recognition are compounded by its increasing accuracy and prevalence. A study by the University of Cambridge highlighted concerns about how this technology might be used to track and profile individuals from a young age, creating a surveillance environment that impacts children’s perception of privacy.

10. The Unknown Future of Social Media

As we consider the future of social media, it’s important to acknowledge that it has evolved considerably from its inception. Originally designed as platforms for connection and sharing, today’s social media landscapes are complex environments with multifaceted implications.

Recent years have seen the creators of major social media platforms facing lawsuits and intense scrutiny over misuse and the platforms’ impact on users, particularly children. Case after case reveals situations where children have been harmed or exploited, underscoring the need for increased awareness and caution.

The digital footprint left for a child on these platforms might have unforeseen consequences, affecting everything from their personal relationships to future job opportunities. Studies have consistently linked social media use to increased rates of anxiety, depression, and loneliness, particularly among younger users.

Research from Boston University further suggests that social media can significantly affect self-esteem and personal development. For children who grow up with a significant online presence, shaped by their parents, the impact on their mental and emotional well-being could be even more pronounced.

Conclusion: The Way Forward

Sharing our children’s milestones and everyday moments online is a personal choice, but it’s worth weighing the risks. These can range from privacy concerns to the possibility of content being misused, all of which are part of the digital landscape we navigate today.

The key takeaway here isn’t to completely stop sharing but to share more mindfully and consider the indirect digital footprint you’re creating. Is it something your child will be comfortable with years down the line? Are you comfortable with the level of personal detail being shared? Who has access to what you post? These questions are worth considering in our increasingly connected world.

This isn’t about adding to the pressures of parenting. Instead, it’s about offering a perspective for you to consider. You have the power to shape your child’s digital footprint, so being informed and cautious can make a significant difference.

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