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Constantly posting information about your children online can put their data and privacy at risk: NPR

Illustration of a mother leaning on the railing of her baby's crib taking photos with her phone.  Heart icons emanate from his phone, and a mobile displaying icons from popular social media sites like TikTok, Instagram and Facebook hangs above his head.  The image is from the baby's point of view in the crib.
Illustration of a mother leaning on the railing of her baby's crib taking photos with her phone.  Heart icons emanate from his phone, and a mobile displaying icons from popular social media sites like TikTok, Instagram and Facebook hangs above his head.  The image is from the baby's point of view in the crib.

Many parents share photos and videos of their children on social media: birth announcements, their child making a mess at the table, their milestones as a first step.

But there are potential dangers to constantly posting information about your child online, says Leah Plunkett, a faculty member at Harvard Law School who specializes in children, family law and technology. In Plunkett’s 2019 book Sharenthood: why we should think before talking about our children onlineit explains how adults can put children’s privacy and personal data at risk.

This phenomenon is called “sharing,” Plunkett explains. Lawyers in their field use the term – a portmanteau of “sharing” and “parenting” – to describe “all the ways that parents, aunts, uncles, teachers, coaches and other trusted adults in the child’s life a child digitally transmit their children’s private information. “This can leave children vulnerable to identity theft and harassment. And as they grow up, it can harm their ability to tell their own stories.

Plunkett talks to Life Kit about the different harms of oversharing, how to post information about your child safely, and how to talk to loved ones about your boundaries. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Parents share a surprising amount of data about their children online. A birthday photo, for example, can reveal a child’s name, age and date of birth. What are some of the privacy concerns around this?

There is a thriving black market for personally identifiable information. Children’s Social Security numbers, when combined with date of birth, name and address, are often good targets for identity theft. Most minors don’t have credit tied to their Social Security numbers, so (someone can use them to) open fraudulent lines of credit.

Creditors don’t verify applicants’ ages, so a bad actor could potentially open a credit card without anyone noticing until the child becomes an adult and wants their own card. What are the other security risks?

There are tragic cases of harassment, intimidation and stalking. They are rare but they happen.

So someone could use social media to determine where your child lives, goes to school, and their habits and routines. They might also learn about their likes and dislikes and use them in insidious ways.

Other people don’t need to know about the ins and outs of your child’s emotional and personal life.

A young girl in a ballet outfit poses in front of a mirror that is also a larger-than-life smartphone, symbolizing the act of parents posting photos of their children's likenesses and activities on social media sites.

You write in your book that children’s data is a form of currency. And there is the adage that if a product is free, You are the product. What should adults think about when giving their children’s data to a company? Or by reading the fine print on a social media platform?

Parents should be aware that they will not know at that time where any information, photo or video might go. When we click “I agree,” these agreements give companies and third parties wide latitude over what they can do with your data.

After the release of my book, The New York Times published a major investigation into how photos of toddlers and young children on social media had been surreptitiously used to train facial recognition software. This is one example among many others.

Plus, at some point, maybe someone will make a decision about your child based on what you’ve posted about them – how your child is doing in school, how they’re doing in the world. Maybe it’s an individual human decision maker. Perhaps it is an algorithm-based data analysis product.

And when you’re talking about decision makers, that could be a college recruiter or a hiring manager. And it can affect your child’s ability to tell their own story.

For themselves or for others in the future. If the world finds out important things about who they are online and makes projections about who they are going to be, it can harm their ability to figure it out for themselves.

Reading your book, it is clear that you are not like a Luddite. You have children, but you haven’t given up on social media. How to avoid sharing the digital domain too much?

Since I started researching this topic, I have adjusted my personal compass to be very minimalist. I almost never post my kids on social media. If I do, you don’t see their faces or anything that could identify them. I don’t use full names. I don’t celebrate their birthday on social media. I don’t show kids standing in front of where they go to school.

I follow a “holiday card or less” rule of thumb when sharing on social media: updates that you would be comfortable with anyone, from your great aunt to your boss, sharing see. Information that will not embarrass anyone and is not particularly private.

Personally, my wife and I are pretty strict about the photos we share of our child. How can you prevent other people, such as family and friends, from taking photos of themselves, for example at a christening or birthday party, and posting them online?

For something like a baptism or other rite of passage, it’s probably impossible to get everyone to not celebrate their joy and pride by pulling out their phones. But you can make a sweet request. You could say: Thank you very much for being in this moment with us. To truly be in the moment, we ask that you refrain from taking photos or videos..

Some people will listen, others won’t. Then, call to see if it’s important enough for you to privately follow people you see taking photos and videos.

How do you model digital consent with your children?

The conversation begins with very young children. Explain what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and where the image or video is going. You might say something like, “Hey, we’re having a really nice meal. We are using a recipe your grandfather sent us. I’ll take a photo for him. Everyone smiles at Grandpa.

You can also ask your child at a very young age, “Is it okay to take a photo?” Doesn’t anyone want that?

What questions should parents ask themselves before posting?

Do you post a photo of your child undressed? If so, please do not post it.

Do you share your child’s location, full name or date of birth? If so, consider whether this level of detail is necessary for your message.

If your parents had shared a similar message about you at that age, how would you have felt about it? If the answer is that it would have really bothered you, take another minute to think about what you need from this message.

What advice would you give to parents who often share photos and videos of their children and their lives on social media? Is it too late for them?

I had the same reaction when I started researching all of this, and I’m here to tell you, take a deep breath. Don’t panic. If you want to change, reread your social media posts and delete what you’re not sure about. Then make your settings private.

Please don’t be hard on yourselves. Since the dawn of time, parents have made the best choices possible at all times, and then later say, maybe I’ll do things differently in the future.

The digital story was edited by Malaka Gharib. The visual editor is Beck Harlan. We would like to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.

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