If you are one of the 14 million Australians who regularly use Facebook and are older than a millennial, chances are your news feed is at least 75 per cent baby photos. Every other day someone is proudly announcing the arrival of another bundle of joy. Inevitably the post includes a photo of the bub with its cute squished newborn face, wrapped in a comfortingly familiar hospital-issue striped blanket.
The baby’s first outing on social media has become a modern day ritual, and an effective way of letting friends and family know your news. But it’s also a bad idea, says Matt Warren, a cybersecurity expert and Professor of Information Systems at Deakin University. Sharing photos of children online is an ethical minefield that few people consider when deciding which Instagram filter makes their kids look cuter and the parents less tired.
Parents do have a legal right to post pictures of their children publicly. “What it all comes down to is the issue of informed consent, and this is where social media fails at every attempt,” says Warren. “I can give my informed consent to share the picture of my children with you, and the assumption is informed consent is only with you.” The problem with sharing images on social media is the implication that consent has been given to any number of unknown people.
School is out
The issue of photo-sharing within the school community is a more difficult dilemma. Schools have had to take drastic action in their attempt to manage the complex challenge mobile devices and social media pose to student privacy.
“Schools are banning people taking pictures at events like annual sports days,” says Warren. “They’re banning students bringing in mobile devices because as well as the issue of people taking pictures of other students without informed consent, they can also used in a cyber bullying context.”
On platforms like Twitter and Facebook, he says, you have no control over anything you post.
“You can set up your privacy settings so you can share with your friend only, but the problem is there’s nothing stopping your friend taking that image and then resharing it without your control, and this is where the whole thing of social media falls down.”
The main concern Warren has with sharing photos of children is the risk of misuse. “If you’ve got no control over the context in which they’re used, in theory someone could use them in an advertising campaign and you’d have no control over that,” says Warren, who notes there is also the risk of photos being misused by paedophiles.
It may seem extreme but Warren recommends never sharing photos of your children online.
Sydney publicist Roxy Jacenko runs a popular Instagram account in her daughter’s name - at last count @pixiecurtis had 110,000 followers. It’s a lucrative endeavour - Jacenko reportedly charges $500 for product placement and has used the account as a platform to launch Pixie’s Bows, a company selling kids’ hair accessories.
Over the years Jacenko has often had to defend herself against claims she is turning her daughter into a “commodity”, but in February this year the news broke she had a more serious problem to deal with; photos of Pixie had been digitally altered to show the four-year-old in sexually explicit positions. Jacenko had referred the matter to police but the damage was already done.
“Once something has been retweeted, once it has been reshared, there isn’t the ability of an individual to necessarily take that off the internet,” says Warren. And if there is a problem, there is little social media companies can do about it. “Because they’re so large, they don’t have real time mechanisms to deal with problems that may have occurred as well.”
Just say no
It may seem extreme but Warren recommends never sharing photos of your children online. This doesn't mean depriving your far-flung granny of her much-cherished regular update of family photos.
“There are other ways you can share information rather than with social media,” says Warren, who recommends sharing photos via secure cloud systems, where you can allocate particular people access to specific folders. “It’s more of a trusted environment,” he says.
Despite the risks and ethical concerns associated with sharing photos online, it is unlikely people are going to stop anytime soon. “The problem is because social media is so popular and the platforms are so easy to use, and it’s linked to mobile devices and cameras in order to generate content, people have got used to using social media in all parts of their life,” says Warren. “They don’t necessarily think of the privacy issues or anti-social issues which may arise through their misuse.”
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