Posting your children’s images online – what should you consider?

Parents and others have a responsibility to examine how they make decisions about posting kids’ personal information online.

Gone are the days when parents got a roll of film developed in order to share a handful of snapshots of their children with a small circle of family and friends. The Internet provides many platforms that allow parents and other family members to easily and instantaneously share photos and videos of kids that can range from the celebratory to the mundane. Examples include a YouTube video of the toddler lip synching to a popular song, the Instagram photo of a 5-year-old child who’s been experimenting with a parent’s make-up, or the video posted on Facebook showing the 10-year-old doing a belly flop into the pool instead of the intended swan dive.

As parents and other adults think about sharing images of kids, there are lots of things to consider – not the least of which is how they’re making decisions for young people about sharing personal information that can remain online forever. In the kinds of examples listed above, it’s unlikely that the adults asked their children for permission to post these images. This is understandable in situations involving young children who aren’t developmentally able to grasp the complexity of what that means. However, when we think about the long life that images and other information can have online – and how what’s shared today has the potential to influence what people think about us in the future – adults may want to think more critically about their decisions to post information about their children online.

As you think about sharing information about the young people in your life, consider the following:

  • It’s possible that what we post online can be shared in ways we may not have imagined. For example, a recent segment on National Public Radio featured the experiences of a family with a 2-year-old child who has a rare disorder that affects her appearance, learning and motor skills. After a birthday photo of the child was posted online, it was shared by thousands of people – many of whom added nasty captions and altered the image. When we share images about our children with our family and friends, they can use a couple of keystrokes to instantly broadcast the information to lots of other people. Some of these people may see the image in the spirit in which it was originally shared, while others may interpret it differently and even use it to hurt or humiliate the young person involved (consider ways that online photos and videos have been used to bully and harass some kids). The adult who originally posted the image – not to mention the young person involved – may have no control over who ultimately sees it, shares it and potentially uses or manipulates it.
  • Think about the “searchability” aspect of the Internet and how images that you post now could affect kids’ lives in the future. When images include some sort of identifier (such as the child’s or parent’s name), it may be easy for search engines to find information about specific people – whether it was posted yesterday or years ago. As young people grow into adolescence and adulthood, they may not appreciate the ease with which others might uncover their personal online images and information, especially when they had no input into making that kind of information public in the first place. For example, that belly flop video described earlier may have been seen by the child’s family as amusing and fun at the time, but the older version of the young person in the video may find it embarrassing and humiliating in the future.
  • If you do share images and information about your children through different kinds of social media, be sure to educate yourself about the kinds of settings available to help protect your privacy. Keep in mind that the default settings of most social media platforms are designed to make information more public and easy to share. Do your homework about ways to adjust the settings to meet your needs and to protect your children’s current and future privacy.
  • Talk with other adults about these kinds of issues. Ask family and friends not to share your child’s images and information without checking with you first. Also keep in mind that schools and youth organizations usually have policies about sharing images of kids and require permission from a parent or guardian to do so. If you’re not familiar with these, follow up and learn more about their protocols so that you have a clear understanding about what may be shared.

Children and adolescents rely on the adults in their lives to make wise and informed decisions related to their wellbeing, identities and privacy. Even though young children may not understand the complexities involved with sharing personal information online, it’s important to have ongoing conversations with kids of all ages about these issues. As kids grow and develop, ask for their perspectives about the kinds of information about their lives that they want you to share online. You may even want to learn about ways that making these kinds of decisions about young people’s lives relates to the concept of adultism, so that you can find that balance between guiding and supporting young people and making decisions about their lives without their input, perspectives or agreement. The young people in your life may really appreciate having you model what it means to be a caring and thoughtful family member as well as a responsible online citizen.

Michigan State University Extension provides a variety of resources related to parenting and the positive development of young people. Among these is an initiative called Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments, which is designed to help adults and young people work in partnership to create positive relationships and which includes focuses on issues such as bullying, cyberbullying and cyber safety.