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Parental Oversharing: Think twice before you post about your child

By : Maryse Guénette

Posting photos of your children or details about them on social media is not a harmless gesture. In fact, the consequences can be serious, both for parents and for their offspring.

It’s hard to resist the urge to immortalize our toddlers’ lives – milestones, goofy or touching moments – by sharing them online. By 2010, some 84% of Canadian mothers were sharing photos of their children under the age of two on the Internet. The practice of parents sharing photos or information about their children on social media has been dubbed “sharenting” or “over-sharenting.”

Though it’s becoming quite commonplace, parental sharing has a number of potential consequences. It also raises important legal issues. Josiane Fréchette, a lawyer who until recently worked at Option consommateurs, addresses these issues in her report Être parent à l’ère du numérique : Le partage de renseignements personnels sur les réseaux sociaux et ses conséquences sur le droit à la vie privée et à l’image des enfants (Parenting in the Digital Age: The Sharing of Personal Information on Social Media and its Impact on Children’s Privacy and Image Rights). Her research was motivated by a personal desire to understand the phenomenon.

What my friends were posting about their children sometimes made me uncomfortable. I wanted to understand why they were doing that and what the consequences might be.”

Josiane Fréchette, lawyer and author of the Option consommateurs study

All sorts of risks  

While small children are unlikely to object to their parents sharing images and anecdotes about them, it’s a different case for older children. “Some teenagers or young adults are troubled when they learn by chance that people they don’t know actually know a lot about them because they’re ‘friends’ of their parents on social media,” says Fréchette.

Funny images or stories can also be used by outsiders. “Children may be teased by schoolmates, or stories may be used to bully them.” In a focus group, Fréchette heard a young boy recount how he had been ridiculed by peers who had found a picture of him on the Internet dressed as a girl. The photo had been posted without his knowledge when he was little.

Oversharing can also expose a child to other risks. For example, an Internet user could reproduce the child’s face on his or her site to make it look like their own child – a practice called “digital kidnapping.” Companies could use posted information for marketing purposes. Even worse, fraudsters could use this information to steal a child’s identity.

“Parents often post quite a bit of information that’s not trivial,” says Fréchette – for example, giving the name of their child’s pet or school. When young people grow up, they may unwittingly choose password questions with answers that are easy to find on social media. This could make the work of a potential fraudster easier.

When parents photograph their child in front of their house, new risks are added. Digital photos often contain information that can be used for geolocation, which could inadvertently provide a child’s address to an ill-intentioned stranger. In the study, Fréchette mentions that according to Barclays Bank, having a child’s name, date of birth and address is enough to open a bank account or apply for credit in the child’s name. All of which leads the author to conclude that in terms of fraud, parental oversharing is “a veritable sword of Damocles hanging over a child’s head.”

Finally, oversharing can expose a young person to child pornography, even when the photos posted do not have sexual connotations. “They only have to be taken by ill-intentioned individuals who distribute them in a completely different context,” says Fréchette. According to Nadia Gagnier, a psychologist interviewed as part of the research, a child who learns of such use could suffer significant psychological consequences.

Many parents believe they are protected when social media posts are made in a private group. According to the researcher, this is not enough.

Everyone in the group can download or share what’s been posted, and those who have access to it can do the same. While most people you share with have good intentions, you’re still putting your child at risk.”

Josiane Fréchette

It is also important to remember that on the Internet, things can last forever. Providing information about your child or photos or videos they appear in creates a digital identity that may be outdated in a few years, which could lead to parent-child conflict. “The child may also decide that he doesn’t want information about him posted on social media,” says Fréchette. “By that point, even if the parent decides to remove the information, it will be too late.”


Inside the minds of parents and children

What do parents and kids think about all this? According to the focus groups that were part of the study, parents are keen to share photos and stories because it’s a way of sharing their passions – including their children – and keeping in touch with friends and family. “Their intentions are good, but when they post things, they act very quickly, without thinking,” says Fréchette. What’s more, some parents feel so close to their children that they don’t differentiate between their own personal information and that of their children. “It’s as if their offspring were part of them.”

Are parents aware of the risks? In some cases, yes. “Child pornography is the first thing they think of,” says Fréchette. “But parents don’t know (or imagine) that anybody could gather a lot of information, use it to paint a full picture of their child, and even steal his or her identity.”

Parents feel protected by privacy settings on social media and don’t realize that once material is on the Internet, it can’t be removed.”

Josiane Fréchette

Young people say they understand their parents wanting to post material about them, but some have reservations about this. They are most concerned about the quantity and frequency of information that is posted. Older children say they become more critical of the practice as they get older. Finally, they express a desire for adults to be transparent and tell their children when they post pictures or information about them.

This solution was well received by parents, especially those with older children. “Children are full-fledged human beings, and posting things about them on the Internet can have an impact on their lives,” says Fréchette. “Asking permission first shows respect. And it avoids future conflicts.”


Rights and remedies

If social media can be used to harm children, are they taking steps to protect kids? To begin with, the four platforms examined in the study – Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter – all prohibit child pornography, and most also prohibit identity theft. They also have official policies against harassment and bullying.

Things get more complicated in other types of situations. In a case of oversharing, the parent is the one who opens the social media account and the one who posts information on it. But “when a person publishes something about a third party, he or she must seek the consent of the third party,” says Fréchette. “Furthermore, the account holder is generally the only one who can get his or her posting removed.” Understandably, this gives parents a lot of power. Fortunately, some social media platforms allow a third party to report unwanted content.

The legal framework doesn’t offer children much more protection.

Children have rights. But exercising those rights is a complex issue. With minor children, it’s the parents who exercise these rights on their behalf.”

Josiane Fréchette

In case of disagreement, things are not so simple. However, children can be protected “against the use of data for sexual purposes or cyberbullying.” Fréchette warns, however, that enforcing such provisions can be complicated.

The research also looks at forms of protection available in other countries, notably Australia, the United States and the European Union. The EU offers a type of protection that Fréchette finds interesting: the right to be forgotten. “This provision allows any person, whether an adult or a child, to ask the company that collected their personal information to erase it,” the report explains. Canadian legislators would do well to move in this direction.

Until new forms of protection emerge, parents would be wise to act with caution. Fréchette suggests that they think twice before posting photos or information on social media. “Parents are often very quick to hit ‘share,’” she says. But take a little time to consider the consequences of your actions. “Waiting for a while lets the sense of urgency pass,” she says. “It lets you consider whether sharing is a good idea.” That way, you can behave in the way that’s most beneficial to your child.

The study

Published in 2019 by Option consommateurs, the study Être parent à l’ère du numérique : Le partage de renseignements personnels sur les réseaux sociaux et ses conséquences sur le droit à la vie privée et à l’image des enfants (Parenting in the Digital Age: The Sharing of Personal Information on Social Media and its Impact on Children’s Privacy and Image Rights) (in French only) examines the potential consequences of parental oversharing on social media. It also looks into social media policies that apply to this phenomenon and legislation that could be used to regulate it. Finally, it explores solutions being used in other countries.

The methodology used in the study includes a typology of risks related to the sharing of children’s personal information on social media by their parents, based on a literature search. The report also includes an analysis of the conditions of use and privacy policies of the social media most used by Canadians, as well as a summary of comments made in focus groups with parents and young adults in two Canadian cities, Montreal and Toronto. Finally, the report provides an analysis of the legal framework that applies to parental sharing in Canada as well as in the United States, Australia and the European Union.

After publishing this report, Option consommateurs created two short videos educate parents about the potential risks of parental sharing. The videos are available in French and English.