Parenthood is made up of many milestones — a child’s first steps, their first successful ride on a bike and, eventually, graduating high school — but, should the entire world know about each milestone?
In a 2010 study by the Internet security company AVG®, 92 percent of U.S. children already have a presence on social media by the time they are two years old. This trend seems to be growing, as it has become increasingly popular for parents to post photos, videos and updates about kids, starting from the baby’s first ultrasound picture. As kids get older, they start posting their own images, often of themselves, across a variety of social media platforms. These potentially identifying posts open the door for bullying, stalking, kidnapping and sexual exploitation. In fact, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children recently released a study showing that 46 percent of 10 to 17 year olds admitted to giving out personal information to someone they did not know. So, what can a concerned and overwhelmed parent do to help protect the younger generation?
The best way to make a change is to start with yourself. Limit what you post! Yes, that bath time photo of your newborn is adorable and should be sent to grandparents and saved in a baby book, just keep it offline. When you do feel the need to post about your kids (or allow your kids to post pictures of themselves), make sure any personal information like nicknames or full names, favorite toys, home address and frequently visited destinations, among other things, are excluded from the post. The National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) says predators can gather this information to make themselves seem more interesting and friendlier to children when they come in contact with them.
Next, monitor your kids’ online activity. Many social media accounts like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram and Musical.ly state that individuals can sign up for their own account at 13 years old. So, when their biggest problems should be first crushes and terrible yearbook photos, young teenagers are naively posting pictures, videos and other information about themselves, often without setting their accounts to private. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center study, 95 percent of teenagers have access to a smartphone, where they regularly access YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat more often than any other social media platforms. Keep in mind, this study does not factor in kids under 13 who have gotten around the age restrictions by signing up with a fake birthday.
One way for parents to monitor accounts is by signing up on all the same social media platforms and “liking,” “following” or “adding” their kids as friends. That way, parents can see posts daily. Also, double check privacy settings every few months to make sure a child’s posts are only going to close friends and family. Guidelines on what to post should also be reinforced. This can range from not allowing your kids to post on social media at all to monitoring who they accept as friends and allowing them to post occasional photos you have approved.
Many Frisco parents are dealing with similar photography safety issues with kids and teenagers. One local mom, Karin Badeau, has three sons, ages 13, 11 and 9. They are not allowed to use any type of social media because, as their mother, she does not believe there is a safe way for children to do so. “In my opinion, children are not strong enough emotionally (this goes for some adults, too) to handle the social pressures of social media,” says Ms. Badeau. “It would be tough seeing their friends get together when they were not invited, or worse, to have someone actually say something mean about a picture or a situation they were involved in. For some reason, people get more brave behind a screen and can lash out without thinking about how it would affect the person they are talking about. This is something new this generation will need to be able to handle growing up, or they will have to be able to let things roll off their backs.”
As far as photos are concerned, Ms. Badeau’s kids can ask her to post something and she can share comments with them. Her oldest son is also allowed to post animation videos to YouTube as a creative outlet, but never videos of himself. She says she follows “the golden rule” on her own social media accounts and does not post anything embarrassing of her kids. She also makes sure to monitor her kids’ phone behavior using an app called “Qustodio” that will flag inappropriate activity.
Of course, the best strategy for dealing with these issues is honesty. “Talk openly with your kids about why it is so important to not share personal information or talk to people they do not know in real life,” says Ms. Badeau. “Explain to your kids the warning signs of dangerous situations, such as people asking where they go to school, where they live, what their phone number is, what their social media accounts are and more. Encourage your kids to turn to parents or another trusted adult if they ever feel unsafe online.”
Unfortunately, other dangerous situations can arise when dealing with photography and children. Last year, Don Sparks, a Frisco man who specialized in child photography, was arrested on a charge of indecency with an 11-year-old. Mr. Sparks was a well-known photographer parents trusted to take professional portraits of their kids — just another reminder of the importance of always being careful. Make it a rule to never leave your child unattended with a photographer, and, again, talk with your kids about uncomfortable topics such as this often so they feel safe coming to you about any situation. “It is important for parents to have open communication with their kids so they will turn to them if they feel someone is trying to take advantage of them,” says James “Gene” Willis, the community services officer at the Frisco Police Department. “Children should also be told to report this to any responsible adult as soon as possible. If you truly want to have good, two-way conversations on a variety of topics, including the short-term and long-term concerns of posting pictures online, make it a routine.”
When you are having this conversation with your kids, Mr. Willis recommends explaining to them that if they start having an uncomfortable feeling or if someone they met online wants to meet in person, they should immediately tell a parent. The NCOSE has a few guidelines as well, including encouraging children to block suspicious users who comment or message them, never sharing their location and limiting hashtags, which can allow anyone to search for their posts.
Kids (and parents sharing photos of their kids) should remember, “Once photos are posted, you are no longer in control of those photos,” explains Mr. Willis. That means photos could stick around forever. Even if you delete them, there is no way to know who has taken a screenshot or saved those photos and what that person will do with them.
That poolside picture of the kids may seem innocent, but in the wrong hands, it could be very dangerous.
The bottom line is, if you would not want strangers or predators to see a photo you are considering posting, then do not post it. In today’s world, posting to social media is as natural as brushing your teeth — only it is much faster. As parents, your job is to protect and guide kids through life, and teaching them about photography safety now comes with the territory. At the end of the day, trust yourself. Only you can know the best way to keep your child safe from harm, online or otherwise. So, keep snapping your camera and capturing those priceless memories, just make sure you are selective when it comes to who will get to see them.
Sydni Ellis is a freelance writer and mom to an always energetic 8-month-old boy. She loves drinking coffee, traveling with her husband and capturing the beauty of the world through words.