Today’s parents know a lot of kids they’ve never met. College buddies, co-workers, former neighbors, and distant relatives dump dozens of images of their kids on Instagram almost on a daily basis. Kids’ photos are so common on social media that they barely register. But the dangers of social media still apply.
We’ve accepted sharing photos of our kids as an everyday occurrence. And most of the time, that isn’t a problem. About 350 million photos are uploaded to Facebook alone every single day. The photo of your kid’s first day at school will almost certainly get lost in the shuffle. But while sharing photos of kids is easy and commonplace, there’s a lot going on under the surface.
Sharing pictures of kids exposes them to the world — including parts of the world parents may want to protect them from. Through technology and details in photos parents often overlook, uploaded photos make children easy to discover. Experts say that indiscriminately sharing photos of children can set them up for risks ranging from embarrassment to identity theft.
Ted Leonard, CEO of the image hosting service Photobucket says big tech companies can use data gleaned from those photos to manipulate children through the increasingly sophisticated facial recognition technologies utilized by companies like the facial recognition firm Clearview AI, which has created a database of billions of public photos.
“Big tech has a ton of info about us and who’s in our photos,” Leonard says. “Facial recognition allows others to recognize our children. And for right or wrong, COVID has increased the velocity at which children use technology.”
Why Parents Need to Think Twice Before Posting
When you post a picture on social media, that image stops belonging exclusively to you. “Technically speaking, every time you upload a photograph on a social media networking site, they own the rights to use such images in any way they see fit,” adds Shayne Sherman, CEO of Techloris, a tech support site. While you retain the copyright to the picture, the social media service whose servers host the image owns the license.
“They can sell it to advertisers and make profit themselves without needing anything from you,” Sherman says. “Their terms and conditions often state that from the moment the image is uploaded they own the rights to use them without any consent. Which can be a really scary thought when you have no idea what it can be used for and by whom.”
Say you post your intimate image of making Sunday morning pancakes with your preschooler to Facebook or Instagram. The image can be reused in their advertising or marketing material without making payments or asking for permission. The odds of your images being repurposed are low, but that’s not the only cause of concern. Instagram has more than a billion users and Facebook has almost three times as many. Social media companies are sure to use the photos to learn more about you, your family, and your friends.
Tech giants like Google and Facebook collect vast pools of personal information from photos, social media and other internet activity. That data is used to target advertisements and shared personal data with advertisers, publishers, developers, and law enforcement and other government agencies. Americans bristle at big tech’s data collection while six in 10 Americans believe it’s impossible to go through our daily lives without being tracked. You don’t need to travel far to understand the discomfort.
“We can look back to recent history. A good example in the Cambridge Analytical scandal,” Leonard says. “People got duped into taking a quiz. The quiz, through a hole in the API — or Application Programming Interface — exposed their personal data. The big issue is the exposure of data that you don’t want to have out there.”
Consumer privacy advocate Chris Hauk worries that parents are unaware of how sharing our children’s images today increases the danger of identity theft tomorrow. A 2018 Barclays bank report warned of a coming wave of identity fraud due to parents sharing photos of their children too freely. Sharing photos leaves a breadcrumb trail of personal information. And as we’re increasing the risk of identity theft, we’re unwittingly conditioning our children to be comfortable with forgoing their right to privacy.
“One effect that these posts may have is to make kids assume they have no right to keep their data private, providing a digital bounty for companies, the government, and the bad actors of the world,” Hauk says. “Young adults today are already at ease with supplying personal information to the world, sharing it to receive ‘free’ services online.”
When “Private” May Not Be Enough
A 2019 survey commissioned by search engine Duck Duck Go found that almost 80 percent of respondents had adjusted privacy settings on social media sites. Unfortunately, tinkering with privacy settings may not keep your photos private.
“It doesn’t matter how securely you posted photos or comments to certain people, Harman Singh, director of British cyber security company The Cyphere, says. “New vulnerabilities are found in applications and devices every week.”
You can lock down your privacy settings as tight as possible. But someone with access to your photos could fall prey to theft or a phishing attack, leaving your photos exposed to the world.
“There’s no privacy on Facebook,” Pam Rutledge, media psychologist and director of the Media Psychology Research Center, says. “I don’t care how you set it. Truly. All you have to be is a friend of a friend and take a screenshot.”
Digital photos say more about you and your family than you might suspect. Rahel Bayar, former sex crimes and child abuse prosecutor with the Bronx District Attorney’s office and misconduct and abuse prevention consultant, notes that personal information is embedded into digital photos by default.
“Every picture you post, depending on where you post it and how you send it, has this metadata attached to it which essentially are breadcrumbs of information about what’s in the photo and where you took it,” she says. “I think a lot of people don’t realize that this data is stored as what’s called exchangeable image format data or Exif data,” Bayar says. “And it’s not going to go away unless you do certain things to remove it.”
Even if you avoid geographic markers like street signs and house numbers, your photos keep a record of your travels.
“If location services on your camera settings aren’t disabled, posting photos for example on social media may give way a lot of information,” Singh says. “This process is known as geotagging, where attackers can find out the precise location from the pictures. If someone online is stalking you for a while, you may give away information about their travel and more attack vectors may be possible provided an attacker has prior knowledge.”
Photos of day-to-life are rich with exploitable detail as well.
“Every time you take a picture in your bedroom, bathroom, or living room pr by your christmas tree, or in your backyard, and depending on what you do with those images, you may be giving yourself a real roadmap into not only how your house is situated, where your kids are but also what their hobbies are,” Bayar says. “Do they like to ride their bike and leave their bike in the front yard? Do they like to play baseball in the backyard? Do they walk to the local ice cream truck?”
It’s important to remember that abductions are very rare. About 300 occur in America per year and abductions by strangers account for about 0.1 percent of them (most missing kids are runaways). Still, it’s not a terrible idea to be careful.
“The danger of your child getting abducted by a predator is fairly low,” Rutledge says. “But I don’t care if it’s one point one zero or some small percent. That’s still some kid. And I don’t want that kid to be mine.”
The anti-sexual violence organization RAINN reports that 93 percent of juvenile victims of sexual abuse are abused by someone they know. Pictures of kids can make it easier to worm their way into a child’s life.
“A part of how an abuser works to manipulate or silence a child is to engage in what we call grooming behaviors, which essentially is an abuser identifying a vulnerability in a child and exploiting that vulnerability to establish a connection,” says Bayar. “The child trusts that adult or that abuser or relies on that adult or abuser. And what better way for someone to manipulate a child than to know from pictures their parents are posting.”
While abuse or abduction is clear and a nightmare for all parents, other less drastic consequences of photo sharing might not be front of mind for parents. Kids can be embarrassed by and bullied because of their childhood photos. Or as they grow older, they could feel like they want to outgrow the public images but can’t.
“At a certain point what you’re doing is you’re starting to challenge their social identity,” Rutledge says. “In other words, they’re forming their identity. Especially when you get to tweens and teens.”
What Parents Should Keep in Mind
So what should parents keep in mind? Rutledge urges parents to be conscious of the values they’re teaching children when they share photos.
“I have concerns about parents dressing up children to look older,” she says. “You’re setting them up to get attention based on an external rather than cultivating their internal sense of competence and self. If you’re sexualizing your children or if you’re making fun of your children, all of these things that change how the world relates to you child and how they start to see themselves.”
When searching for photo-sharing failsafes for your kids, checking your privacy settings on social media and devices is a good start. If that doesn’t feel like enough, then consider taking your kids photos off of social media entirely and move your photos to photo hosting sites with more robust privacy controls.
The most important check is your kids. Ask your kids about what kind of photos they’re comfortable having shared. And do it early.
“If you’ve had that conversation early on, then it opens it up for all kinds of conversations, says Rutledge. “They’re thinking about how they’re presenting themselves, which is what you want. You want that critical thinking to kick in.”