The plight of the modern child: 1,000 (potentially embarrassing) photos online before you turn 5

Getty Images, Elena Scotti/FUSION

It was an amazing story. Too amazing. An Austrian magazine reported that an 18-year-old was suing her parents for posting embarrassing childhood photos to Facebook. She didn’t want images of her bathing and being potty trained to be available online, according to Die Ganze Woche, which withheld the identity of the girl and her parents to protect her privacy.

When other journalists went digging for more information about the court case, they determined the story was fake. Die Ganze Woche did not retract the piece, instead reporting in a follow-up story that the girl’s parents had decided to delete the embarrassing photos. The newspaper quoted the maybe real-maybe not 18-year-old saying something along the lines of, “Kids don’t exist simply to satisfy parents’ addiction to posting about their lives on social media.”

Regardless of its authenticity, the story quickly went viral as many people empathized. Today’s children are photographed and filmed more than any kids in history, with most parents proudly plastering images of their greatest creations all across the internet. According to the Wall Street Journal, the average parent “will post almost 1,000 photos of a child online before the child turns 5.” Beyond pics, people are blogging about “their favorite child,” setting up Facebook accounts for their fetuses, and tweeting in their baby’s voices, giving kids a digital presence before they can even talk.

In 2008, a couple of researchers did an informal study of photos of “babies in bathtubs” that had been posted publicly to Flickr. A quick search revealed over 5,000 of them. They analyzed the first 500, and found the youngsters were completely nude in a quarter and their first and last name were available 17% of the time.

Via Jacob Kramer-Duffield and Carolyn Hank,
School of Information and Library Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel HillVia Jacob Kramer-Duffield and Carolyn Hank, School of Information and Library Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

From a 2008 study of bathtub photos featuring children on Flickr

Do kids deserve some privacy? Will today’s children hate their parents one day when they’re running for office and a photo surfaces of them at 2-years-old proudly standing next to their first toilet doo-doo? It’s possible that there will be such a huge amount of photos of people from their entire lives that the one doo-doo pic won’t matter, or that inevitably everyone will have one, but it also sets kids up for a lifetime of being data-mined by corporations at a very young age.

But… kids are so cute! They’re a momentous life event! They do weird, funny and wonderful things that beg to be shared with the world! “I think blogging about your kids is a great thing,” writes occasional family blogger Buzz Bishop. “I think creating a digital diary and archive of your family will be a valuable resource in the future.” Rather than being locked away in an album on a shelf in the ancestral home, it’s available anytime someone wants to revisit childhood memories. What’s a modern parent to do?

In March, Stacey Steinberg, a professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law, published an online academic article on the legal implications of “sharenting,” an awful neologism that The Atlantic rebroadcast in an article this week. (Don’t worry, I promise not to use the awful expression again in this piece.) The tl;dr version of her paper: Sorry kids, you’re out of luck. At the end of the day, it comes down to the judgement of parents, family members, and whoever else has a smartphone in the presence of a child.

“It is likely that children in the future will have no protection against their parents’ decision to post their personal information online,” wrote Steinberg. “Unless public attitudes change, the few children who do take issue with their pre-formed digital footprint will likely have no recourse as a matter of law or in the court of public opinion.”

Choosing carefully what you post of your child is one tactic for not screwing with their privacy. Don’t, for example, share their toilet adventures with the world. In rare instances, something truly terrible can happen, as when a mommy blogger found that photos she’d shared of her twins potty-training had been altered and shared on a child pornography site. Beyond that very disturbing risk, just think about yourself in the same position as the child in the photo and whether you’d want that shared with the world. (That would lead to an immediate ixnay on the excretion photos.)

If you are using advanced privacy settings, good on you! But even that isn’t enough, writes Adrienne LaFrance in The Atlantic.

“[P]osting baby photos to a private Facebook group or protected Instagram account is not without risk,” writes LaFrance. “With private groups, there is this false sense that everybody in the group knows each other and has the same interests in mind,” Steinberg told her. (This is a lesson college Snapchatters have certainly taken to heart as their snaps of themselves in blackface, sent to closed group of friends, keep going viral.)

Steinberg recommends actually asking kids what they want, as early as age four, which raises the impossible question, when does a human being develop a sense of and right to privacy, and is it retroactive? From her paper, which will publish in the Emory Law Journal in 2017, via The Atlantic:

By age four, children have an awareness of their sense of self. At this young age, they are able to build friendships, have the ability to reason, and begin to compare themselves with others. Parents who post regularly can talk about the Internet with their children and should ask young children if they want friends and family to know about the subject matter being shared.

(The kid who understands the internet by age 4 is a kid whose intellect terrifies me.)

Every once in a while, a parent’s over-sharing something that seems terrible at first glance can have an upside. After the Sandy Hook shootings in 2012, a woman wrote under her real name a blog titled, “I am Adam Lanza’s mother.” The post compared her son and his emotional issues to the murderer who had recently killed his own mother, elementary school children, teachers, and ultimately himself. She kept her son anonymous but observers at the time were horrified that she was willing to risk her own son’s reputation. Calling him a potential serial killer under her real name and including a childhood photo, meant his identity could be exposed. Via the Washington Post:

When she visited her son in the hospital the day after her post published, they discussed it. He asked her why she would compare him to a “serial killer.” He was hurt and confused.

The Post reports that his mother’s blog led to him being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a condition he’s since been able to get under control through treatment. Four years later, he’s now 16, and on the speaking circuit, attempting to control his own reputation. From a TedX talk he gave in Boise this year:

“The lesson I want you to take away from this story is this: ‘Yes, I have a mental illness. No, I’m not inferior to other human beings. No, I’m not crazy. No, I’m not someone to be feared.’”

So, yes, there may be benefits to broadcasting your child’s life. But share with care.

When we share online, we don’t just sacrifice our own privacy, we sacrifice the privacy of the people in our lives. When my nephew was born, I decided to take my Instagram account from public to private. Until then, I’d always been very public online. Making my living by committing my thoughts and observations to public record had made me quite cavalier towards my own personal privacy. But I had an immediate sense of protectiveness over my newborn nephew, only wanting to share his image with a closed network of people I really knew. But who knows what the future holds with the ability to do face recognition searches and the possibility that someone in my network could leak? Even that may not have been protective enough.