Estimated reading time: 11 minute(s)

It is not at all uncommon for parents and other relatives of young and older children to post pictures of children on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media platforms. This leads to legal conflict on occasion, for example in the much-publicized May 2020 decision wherein a Dutch court ordered a grandmother to delete pictures of her grandchildren on Facebook after the mother of the children took legal action. Few cases end up in courts, however, and for many kids, the idea that their entire childhoods may be documented online in blogs and on photo-sharing sites is merely a fact of life.

I have long found the idea of sharing content about and pictures of minor children online, including one’s own children, to be ridden with problems. In this article, I will offer some thoughts on not using the internet and social media in such a way as to deprive children of the space they need to think and feel for themselves. Please note that this article mostly deals with sharing that would be considered relatively innocuous and unobtrusive absent children being involved.

Illustration of a child falling asleep at the table from R.L. Stevenson's "A Child's Garden of Verses" (1905)
Illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith in 1905 edition of R.L. Stevenson’s “A Child’s Garden of Verses.”

Update Note for Feb. 19, 2022: I made a formatting improvement to the in-article dialogue and appended a couple of typo fixes. See my follow-up article here.

My Frame of Reference on the Internet and Growing Up

When I graduated high school, Facebook was just over four years old, and had only just surpassed Myspace as the leading social media platform. I used neither Facebook nor Myspace, although many of my classmates, and some of their parents, did.

The social media situation for people around my age was very different than for many children in school today. To the extent that kids and their parents had accounts on large social media platforms, they were young accounts. Even the most avid parental sharers would have had some catching up to do to provide an after-the-fact account of their child’s life story from before Facebook or Myspace existed.

The worst privacy-related fear that a student may have had then was his or her parent or long-time friend disclosing old embarrassing stories to others in person. Today, however, even graduating high school seniors may have had their entire childhoods chronicled in various formats online for well over a decade. If their parents or friends of their parents are “friends” with any of their peers, their peers may have ready access to their bathtub pictures and any number of stories that may make a child or adolescent cringe. However, this new paradigm likely also warps how many K-12 students think about privacy, meaning that it would be wrong of me to assume that high school students today think of privacy in the same way that my peers may have thought of it more than a decade ago.

To Begin, a Story From My High School Days

To start, allow me to offer a story from my own high school days in dialogue format. Since this conversation was more than ten years ago, it should go without saying that the following dialogue is not an exact word-for-word account of my conversation, but instead a re-telling that conveys the subject.

Classmate: Something is bothering me. My mom has been talking about me with her friends and it makes me uncomfortable.
Me: What is she saying about you? Is it something private or embarrassing?
Classmate: No, not at all. She just tells her friends that I am doing very well in school and work hard.
Me: I assumed she was saying something she shouldn’t. It sounds like your mom is just proud of you. Why does this make you uncomfortable?
Classmate: I don’t really know her friends. I don’t know, I just don’t like being the subject of conversation when my mom is talking to people who I don’t even know.

My first thought was that my classmate was concerned with the content of her mother’s speech. This, however, was not the case. Her mother was merely offering generic praise about her to friends, praise that could have been readily mirrored by another parent in the group about his or her own child. At the time, I was confused, so I asked what exactly my classmate was concerned about. She explained succinctly that her issue was not with the content of what her mother was saying, but merely with the fact that her mother was talking about her to people who she did not know.

Reflecting on My Anecdote

Whenever I see an example of a parent sharing too much information about his or her child online, I think back to that conversation I had with my classmate. Although she did use social media and shared information about herself online, her sense of personal autonomy and view of the world was still influenced by having gone through much of her childhood at a time before the internet was ubiquitous. She grew up at a time when the only way that one’s classmates might learn about a past bed-wetting problem was if his or her parents or older siblings disclosed it personally. Today, many, if not most, children do not have that frame of reference. A child whose every baby picture and subsequent major life event is immortalized on Facebook, and who may have had a tablet before he or she could walk and talk simultaneously, never had the opportunity to contemplate personal privacy in the way that my classmate did.

Identifying the Main Circumstances

In one episode of one of my favorite anime series, His and Her Circumstances (also known as “Kare Kano”), the headmaster of a school tried to reason with the show’s main characters, the school’s two best students, to stop dating and focus on their studies. When they proved to be not amenable to his persuasion, he called their guardians in and explained his position. The father of the young lady in the relationship listened respectfully before offering his view: “I think that children have the right to think and feel for themselves.”

The anecdote interests me not because of the merits or demerits of my classmate’s position, but rather because she grew up on a world that was conducive to having that position at all. Despite the fact that my classmate’s mother’s sharing was as benign as parental sharing can be, it made my classmate uncomfortable all the same. She was uncomfortable, in part, because her childhood experiences of privacy had given her the opportunity to think those issues through for herself.

Now consider the case of a child who never had that opportunity because the child’s life story from birth is already on Facebook by the time he or she can walk and talk at the same time without being at serious risk of injury. Can we be sure that the fact the child may not express any objection to being the subject of his or her parent’s Facebook posts means that there is no problem? Or is the fact that the child never had the opportunity to “think and feel” about the issue for him or herself a problem in and of itself?

Swisscows Parenting Guide: On Sharing Pictures

In June, a company called Swisscows, which maintains a family-friendly privacy-friendly search engine and a VPN services, released a pamphlet titled “Digital media education: Taking responsibility as parents.” Although Swisscows’s search engine draws results from Microsoft’s Bing, it filters adult content by default, setting it apart from other popular alternative search engines such as DuckDuckGo, Startpage, and Qwant, wherein filters can be toggled on or off. The pamphlet is interesting, and I may return to it in a future post, but for today I will focus on a single section on page 16 titled “Caution with pictures.”

The section reads as follows:

Pictures can be copied online and distributed endlessly. There is no control over who has seen or is still seeing the pictures. Parents should consider together with the child if they want to take the risk. Never upload pictures of friends without their consent. It is best not to give consent yourself. Parents should not post pictures of their children.
(Emphasis added.)

“Digital media education: Taking responsibility as parents”

To be sure, Swisscows’s advice is geared more toward safety and general privacy than the issue that concerns this particular essay. The two points I emphasized in the quote, however, are on point for the issues concerning this article, as I will discuss below

Thoughts on Sharing Photos of and Content About Children

Swisscows’s advice is geared toward online safety, and on that issue it takes a hard line with regard to sharing pictures of one’s own children. Without opining on the entire section, I will say that I agree that, in most cases, parents should not post pictures of their children online. Children, especially young children, should be permitted to grow up in their little worlds without having each stage of their development chronicled on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, blogs, or anything of the like. Giving a child the space to grow up allows the child to develop a sense of self and a sense of what is private and what is public, and to decide as he or she grows older what is for sharing and what is not.

At a minimum, Swisscows’s alternative advice about “risk” applies to mundane privacy concerns as well. If a parent is intent on sharing benign family pictures or stories online, perhaps he or she should take the time to explain what that means to the child and, especially as the child grows older, offer the child the opportunity to opt out. In this way, the child can learn to think about his or her portrayal for him or herself, and decide with his or her parent what level of sharing is appropriate.

Children Are Not Means to a Digital End

If the parent is upset by the prospect that he or she would have to give up sharing pictures of his or her children with Facebook contacts, Twitter users, or whoever else, the parent should ask him or herself why this is so? Lest the child is in the line of succession for the British crown, family matters do not need to be public matters. If a child is uncomfortable with a certain level of sharing, perhaps that is an opportunity for the family to spend more time making memories for themselves and less time making memories for a broader audience.

Surely, a parent or other relative would not want to share things about children in order to garner more attention for him or herself. When considering what to share or not share, parents and guardians should bear in mind that children are not means to an end of winning attention or approval for the adult. If a child is courteous and well-mannered in interacting with people, that in and of itself should win the parent approval. If the child has physical or mental challenges but the parent diligently perseveres in raising the child and acting as the child’s best advocate, that too should win approval. If the parent, guardian, or other relative needs validation in the form of social media “likes” or comments on a blog, he or she can pursue the empty quest without using his or her children. If there is no path to winning empty internet approval without using one’s own children, the adult should concede that not everyone is cut out for reality television.

Sharing Compromises?

For purposes of this article, I am concerned with the ethics of sharing innocuous photos of and content about one’s children. I am less concerned here with more other issues such as sharing outright embarrassing photos and content about one’s children or content that would, intentionally or not, catch the attention of certain adults with disordered feelings toward children.

I would be loath to conclude the article without addressing the potential for “compromises.” For example, a family member of children reading this might argue that private Facebook groups and the like vitiate some of the concerns that I raised in this article.

To start, I do not think merely limiting access to content about one’s children changes the fact that parents should still follow the steps that I set forth above. Furthermore, parents should consider how much they are limiting access to content about their children. Is the group limited to family? Does the child know and like everyone in the group? Do members of the group feel free to share the images with others outside the group? As we saw in my high school-era anecdote, some children and adolescents may be uncomfortable with having even good information shared with people they do not know and are not comfortable with.

Sharing pictures with only family and close family friends is, perhaps, stronger ground for the share-happy parents. In that case, however, I would suggest considering what forum the parent is using for sharing. For example, one could make a private Facebook Group, but Facebook has admitted that, at a minimum, it scans ostensibly private direct messages between users.

My anime example for the article, His and Her Circumstances aired from 1998 to 1999, and it was based on a manga series that started in 1996. In the current day, there is no hiding from the internet, nor is hiding advisable. But adults should not use the internet in such a manner that deprives children of the space to grow up in such a way that they can intelligently think and feel for themselves about how much personal information, even of an innocuous nature, that they are comfortable sharing.

Parents and relatives should always consider that many platforms that are “free” on the surface turn their users into products for advertisers, and then consider what this means about how or whether they should share wholesome family content, even if the whole family is onboard, on those platforms.

Meritorious Exceptions

There may be some cases where there is a very compelling reason to share personal family information, well above and beyond trite pictures and comments on Facebook. Some of the most powerful advocates for physically and mentally disabled children, children with various learning disabilities, and crime victims are the parents of those children. It is often the parents who stand up to incompetent public school systems on behalf of their children who show the way for other parents to do so and effect broader positive change in education. At a time when children with Down syndrome are too often denied the chance to be born, parents of children with Down syndrome serve as testament to the fact that the genetic disorder should not be treated as a death sentence or eugenics experiment, and thus may offer courage and comfort to parents to stand their ground when others suggest otherwise.

Cases such as these and other unique situations show why drawing a bright line rule about sharing information about children is neither practical or desirable. However, even in these cases where there exists a story that may help others, parents, guardians, and onlookers should never lose sight of the fact that the child is a human being deserving of the same sort of privacy as others are. After all, were this not the case, what would the admirable parent have spent all the effort fighting for?

Finally, I acknowledge other special cases such as up and coming entertainers and prodigies in one area or another, where different considerations and concerns about privacy may arise that are beyond the scope of the instant article.

Final Thoughts: Learning to Think and Feel For Oneself

As the good father in His and Her Circumstances said, “children have the right to think and feel for themselves.” This is not a limitless right. Parents have authority over children for good reason. It is the job of parents to teach children how to distinguish right from wrong, how to behave in public and private, how to pursue the good over the bad, and to protect children from the many evil and unpleasant things in the world. There are other things, however, that children must figure out for themselves as they take in what their parents teach them and gradually become more independent.

In the case of His and Her Circumstances, the main couple’s upbringing had played a role both in their being such good students that their school was concerned about them falling a few spots in a class-wide test ranking and in their guardians trust in them to decide the importance of the relationship and how they could balance it with their responsibilities as students. That the main couple was given strong guidance along with the space to think and feel for themselves was important.

His and Her Circumstances aired from 1998 to 1999, and it was based on a manga series that started in 1996. There is no hiding from the internet, nor is doing so advisable. But adults should not use the internet in such a manner that deprives children of the space to grow up in such a way that they can intelligently think and feel for themselves about how much personal information, even of an innocuous nature, that they are comfortable sharing.