Digital media and privacy experts explain why parents should think twice before sharing images with personal information about their kids online.
As soon as August rolls around, social media feeds begin to fill up with parents sharing their kids’ first-day-of-school pictures. You know the ones: a smiling kiddo holding up a chalkboard sign (or a piece of paper for the less Pinterest-y among us) with their name, age, school, teacher, interests and hobbies.
Although these photos are a sweet way to commemorate a new school year, posting them online poses some potential risks, experts say. So it’s good for parents and caregivers to be more intentional about what they’re sharing online, why they’re sharing it and with whom.
One concern with posting these popular back-to-school photos on social media is that the images themselves and the information in them could be used by scammers, cybercriminals and other bad actors,Iskander Sanchez-Rola, director of privacy innovation at the cyber safety company Norton, told HuffPost.
“Posting personally identifiable information of your children on social media can open a can of worms for digital and physical threats,” he said.
“Scammers can also easily identify a child by searching their full name or reverse image searching a photo of their face shared online,” Sanchez-Rola added. “If your child is old enough to have social media like Facebook or Instagram, cybercriminals can use their name and image to find their account and directly contact them.”
Kaitlin Allair Tiches, a research librarian with the Boston Children’s Digital Wellness Lab, cautioned against posting details like your child’s full name, birthday and school name online, as this information “could be used for financial fraud or to try to gain access to their data or that of their family members,” she said.
Allair Tiches cited a 2018 study from the bank Barclays predicting that “sharenting” — the term for parents sharing photos and information about their kids online — will be linked to over 7 million identity fraud incidents annually by 2030.
Remember that it’s possible that pictures you post on social media can be used by people you don’t even know in ways you don’t intend, though some of them are rare.
It’s an unfortunate reality that photos shared innocently online can end up being used by others outside of your network.Kaitlin Allair Tiches of the Boston Children’s Digital Wellness Lab,
“It’s an unfortunate reality that photos shared innocently online can end up being used by others outside of your network, whether for advertising or even on sites containing child sexual abuse material,” Allair Tiches said.
For safety reasons, you may not want to share the name of your child’s teacher or school online.
“Otherwise, anyone can know where your child is a majority of the day, Monday through Friday,” Sanchez-Rola said. “Sharing hobbies and extracurriculars also clues in where your kids spend time after school.”
Any nuggets of personal information about your kid found online can help scammers make their schemes seem more legitimate.
“For example, if they know the name of your kids’ teacher or school, they can personalize a phishing message, known as ‘spear phishing,’ with these details to appear more convincing,” Sanchez-Rola said.
Devorah Heitner is an expert on young people’s relationship with online media and author of the upcoming book “Growing Up In Public: Coming Of Age In A Digital World.” She acknowledges there are potential risks involved with posting these first-day-of-school pictures online. However, many parents are sharing about their kids on the internet this way today, so posting one of these photos doesn’t make your child “uniquely vulnerable” to harm, she told HuffPost.
“There are a lot of elementary schoolers on the internet. Most of them will not be, for example, stranger kidnaps because they were shared on social media. So I think we don’t want to overstate that risk,” Heitner said.
It’s not just about safety, though.
Before posting, consider, too, your child's right to digital privacy.
Beyond concerns about safety and fraud, these popular back-to-school posts should open up an important conversation about honoring our kids’ right to privacy online, Heitner said.
Ideally, you should ask your child’s permission before posting about them on social media.
“We’re offering them the opportunity to say, ‘No,’ which is really important because having that boundary and having to get consent is a really important way for them to learn about boundaries and think about their own public image and their own reputation,” Heitner said.
For a younger child who may not understand the concept of social media, you could say something like, “Is it OK for me to share this picture outside of the family?” Heitner suggested. You can ask older kids if they’re OK with you posting it on your account and discuss who follows you or can see what you share.
Before posting, think about your child as a future self-conscious teenager, Heitner advised. For example, you might think sharing a picture of your kindergartener in their “Sesame Street” overalls and “Paw Patrol” backpack is adorable. But in a few years, they might be mortified by this.
It’s natural to want to post about your kids online, especially when so many of your friends are sharing pictures, stories and updates about their families, too. That being said, it’s important to balance your desire to connect with other parents with your kid’s privacy, Heitner said.
“We should really make sure we’re finding our community as parents in other ways,” Heitner said. “I really sympathize with parents’ needs for community and support and visibility, but I think we shouldn’t do it at the expense of our kids’ privacy.”
Here’s what parents can do better to protect their kids online.
Experts share steps parents can take to help protect their families online.
There are ways to still share moments and milestones with family and friends while mitigating the aforementioned risks. Here’s how to approach it more safely and, as Allair Tiches said, “with an eye to your child’s wellbeing.”
Check your privacy settings.
One way to better protect your kid’s digital safety and privacy is by limiting the number of people who have access to what you share on social media, said Sanchez-Rola.
“This can be done by making all accounts private and by removing anyone from your friends and followers lists that you either don’t know or don’t want to have access to photos of your children,” he said. “Some social networks, like Instagram, allow you to create a ‘Close Friends’ list that will share some stories only with a subset of followers.”
Do a social media audit every so often.
In addition to going through your followers periodically (and not accepting new follow requests from people you don’t know), look through old posts to see if there’s anything you might want to take down.
“Do you need all those old pictures up there?” Heitner said. “I’ve sometimes made my settings more private on a picture later on.”
Talk to your kids about this audit process, too.
It’s “a great way to train them and get them ready for their own social media experiences,” Heitner said.
Consider not posting your kid’s full name or face online.
In the images you post, you could cover their face with an emoji or have your child facing away from the camera.
“It’s ultimately up to parents to decide how much of their kids’ lives they want to showcase on social media,” Sanchez-Rola said.
He added that some parents choose to refer to their child by a nickname online rather than sharing their legal name.
Have ongoing conversations with your child about posting online.
Start talking about this with them when they’re young, then keep the dialogue going as they age. Ask them what they’re comfortable having shared about them online, Allair Tiches said.
“For younger children, this may be simply showing them the photo and asking if you can post,” she said. “As they get older, you can add in conversations about the reach and permanence of online posts and about online privacy and security.”
“For teens and older children, you can ask if they would share the post on their own social media page and why or why not,” Allair Tiches continued. “Lots of kids worry that their friends or schoolmates could see embarrassing posts of them online, and what may be a silly photo or video to you may seem very embarrassing to them.”
You can also tell your kid how you decide what to post about yourself online and what to keep offline.
“These open conversations and respect for your child’s right to consent can foster positive online habits, trust and healthy communication,” Allair Tiches said.
Be sure to talk to your family and friends about your preferences, too.
Let your inner circle know what you are and are not comfortable having them share or repost about your child on their own social media pages, Allair Tiches said.
And remember, there are other ways to share pictures and special memories that don’t involve posting them online for a wider audience.
Allair Tiches said, “Consider sharing photos with loved ones through a private album application or through private messages, like texts.”