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The Problem with Posting Instagram Photos of Your Kids

There are some big questions to ask before you press "post" on that cute photo of your child.

Is it ethical to post photos of your kids to social media? At least at first, anyway, most parents treat Instagram or other social media the same way previous generations did frames, scrapbooks, or carousel slide shows: as a way of capturing a fleeting moment of joy they want to remember and share with others. Often this evolves, whether consciously or not, into posting adorable photos of their kids to get the dopamine rush of likes that come soon after, or as a form of posturing. These days a photo of a child can be posted a badge of honor, a means of personal branding to show off a different side of oneself, a way to get LOLs from friends and family members, or even a way to generate revenue.

No matter the internal or external motivation, posting a picture of your kid online is, of course, far more complicated than framing a photo. A social media post isn’t as simple as a printed photograph. Photographs are physical objects that can only be seen in person. They can’t be mined for data. And if the child in the photo later became embarrassed or upset by the image, they’d be thrown away and forgotten (or to hide away until they’re adults to look at and laugh) instead of hanging on a worldwide digital platform in perpetuity.

Sharing pictures of kids on social media is so common, however, that it feels strange when a fellow parent doesn’t. And with technology and media, it’s often hard to distinguish between real and imaginary concerns — especially when it comes to our kids. But is it unethical to post photos of your kids without their consent? Is it dangerous? Or could it be a good thing? The question of whether or not parents should post photos of their children to Instagram, Facebook, and other such social media sites is a complex one to say the least. So, to make sense of it, we reached out to four experts — a philosophy professor, a clinical psychologist, an attorney, and a media psychologist —  about the ethics of posting images of kids online. Here’s what they said.

The Expert: Norvin Roberts

Expertise: The University of Alabama philosophy professor emeritus literally wrote the book on ethical parenting (2010’s The Ethics of Parenthood).

What are parents’ ethical obligations with children? Obviously you’ve got to help the child stay alive while the child is still a child. But you have obligations to them as the adults they’re going to become. So the standard thing to say is you want to equip them to live autonomously, if they’re capable of doing that. We sometimes think of childhood as a sort of prep school for becoming an adult. That’s a mistake because childhood is an important time of life in its own right. You also have obligations to help the child have a childhood. The interesting question is how to put those two things together. Something that would be good for him as a child might not be a good thing for him in terms of the adult he’s going to become. I would guess that a lot of posting on social media is done by parents who are just thinking that the kid is incredibly cute are not really thinking of either obligations.

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I wouldn’t say that makes it wrong. You know, it isn’t like if you’re going to be a parent, everything you do with your child has to be goal directed in some way. That would be be grim and formal.

The obvious worry is you’d posting something the child wouldn’t want posted if the child were capable of making the choice herself. I taught a course that concerned privacy and parenthood. And I remember thinking about these photographs of kids who are just completely naked? You know they are on a rug and aren’t they cute and so on. But if I’m the kid and I get to be a teenager, I might think I don’t want to have pictures of my body out there for people to look at. Maybe I don’t even like the idea that it was done and the idea that I was exhibited in that way.

Most kids are not going to grow up to be famous so you wouldn’t worry about people digging up this stuff when they ran for president or when they’re movie stars or whatever. And you don’t have any way to know if the child will resent it or disapprove of it later.

Parents used to take photographs of their children and put them in albums and then when the kid came home with the boyfriend or the girlfriend might show those photographs and embarrass the heck out of a kid and have a good laugh if a kid and that kind of humor within families is very common.

There’s so much you don’t know when you’re a parent because it’s so far in the future that you don’t want to fixate on one interpretation of it. But if you have some really skewed sensibilities and you dress up your kid weird or had some sort of very idiosyncratic or odd or out of step with the common culture kind of religious beliefs or cultural belief. Suppose you had a male child and you like to dress him up in girls clothing. I would say that’s a landmine. I don’t want to speculate about any consequences for the child of having been dressed that way. But putting photographs out there on Facebook, and saying “isn’t he cute in his dress” would be outrageous.

Embarrassment is not one of the major harms or a bad turn of events for us. But I think I would still not want to embarrass my child.

The Expert: Dr. Chloe Carmichael

Her Expertise: Dr. Chole Carmichael is a clinical psychologist with a bustling New York City practice, by virtue of her media appearances as Dr. Chloe. She’s also a mom who, with caution and consideration, posted two pictures of her son on her Instagram feed.

It’s just like any other type of activity whenever you’re going to be in public. It’s a good idea to be mindful and careful about your children. Every parent is different, but I personally think it would be a little extreme to take that to mean that you should never, ever post any images of your child on social media.

There are many concerns. There’s the child’s right to privacy. There’s exposing the child in view of, you know, potentially dangerous or pedophilia people of course. If you’re starting to turn your child into an accessory that’s designed to help get you views or getting you public attention, it feels like you’re almost exploiting your child in a commercial sense or even just a personal social sense. I think that can be damaging to a child.

If it’s really just a personal social account, then I think it would be the same thing that drives them to print photos of their child and hang them on the wall because they want to display photos of people that they love and that they’re proud of. And it allows friends and family who might be far away, who aren’t necessarily in your actual living room to be able to stay connected.

If you’re coming from a place of wanting to share a moment in your life, that’s fine. You just want to share it with people. There’s nothing really wrong with that. But if it takes on almost an exhibitionist quality, where you’re deriving a sense of validation from that and all of these views, likes, and re-shares are affirming your worth, that’s where you’re probably going off track.

When you put out an image and people respond, it gives a sense of validation to see other people feeling positively about what you are enjoying. And there’s nothing wrong with wanting external validation, but just like any of these things when they’re taken to an extreme, that would be in the exhibitionist sense, when the exhibitionist becomes over-focused on external validation to the point where they’re not even really enjoying a moment for any other real value except for the sheer knowledge that it’s bringing eyeballs to them. And that’s a sad enough thing for an individual to go through. But if that quality extends to your child, it could hurt the quality of the time with your child.

The Expert: Ken Krayeske

Expertise: Krayeske is a Connecticut attorney has worked with clients concerned about privacy (full disclosure: he’s also a friend of the writer).  Through his former journalism career, his legal practice and marriage to a Hartford City Councilmember, he has a high profile in New England politics and media but keeps his daughter’s image almost completely off the internet.

Number one, I want my daughter to have her own ability to create her own digital footprint. Number two, I have had terrible experiences in my own life with posts being misconstrued and things that I have said online being taken incorrectly and I do not want to do anything to impact her in that way. I want her to have complete control. And finally, I don’t want her to hate me in 20 years when I’ve posted the classic picture of, you know, the half naked baby in the bubble bath.

I’ve come to realize is there’s an intense amount of joy that comes with raising a child. A lot of that joy is a private familial joy that doesn’t have to be shared with the world. And I think that’s what makes families so powerful is that these are experiences shared only by a few people.

And there is joy and optimism and hope that comes with a 12-month-old little person who is learning the ropes and especially one who’s objectively cute. But at the same time, she’s got a right to privacy. The thing is, I don’t know what Facebook is doing with the data. I don’t know what Twitter is doing with the data. I don’t know what the NSA is doing with data. I don’t know what people are doing with the data. That concerns me more than anything else.

The Expert: Pamela Rutledge

Expertise: Rutledge is the director of the Media Psychology Research Center and a psychology faculty member of  Fielding Graduate University. As a psychologist, she specializes in the influence social media and technology have on human behavior.

You have to be very careful. Having children and sharing things about your children has always been an intrinsic part of parenthood and it’s sort of how we normalize the experience of parenting. But we are now in an environment where if you don’t know and understand the technology, you are having a potential impact on your children. That was never the case before.

You need to understand the fact that these various social media sites, Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, etc. You need to understand their search functions. You need to be really aware of who owns that data, where it lives, how long it’s there.

I don’t want to be a fearmonger, but you could be providing too much information to people with evil intentions by having your kid standing in front of your house with the address showing in a world where we have Google maps.  

To me the real issue is violation of privacy at a point where it’s meaningful to the child. There are children now who tell their parents they have to show me pictures before posting. You’re opening your child up to potential bullying or feeling embarrassed or feeling like they aren’t in control of themselves.

I personally think the job of a parent is to raise their children and part of that is protecting them and honoring, respecting them as individuals, which means that you have to put your children’s well-being ahead of your own financial goals.

I think you need to be really aware of who owns that data, where it lives, how long it’s there. I mean, college admissions people could find it. And it’s complicated because we’re also creating an environment where every eight year old wants to be a youtuber.

[Parents] have to have some level of media literacy and it’s your obligation to train your children with some level of media literacy. You know, you don’t hand them the car keys and say “have at it.”

You will want to be careful about how much sort of information you put up this, it’s one thing to post #funsummerday. It’s another thing to detail that we’re in Newport beach and ate tuna sandwiches at this restaurant at this time. You’re giving them content that they can use. As a researcher, I know that there are certain social posts that are just very hard to get any information out of. You’re really trying to squeeze blood out of a turnip.