In today’s globalized world, children often make their Internet debut before they are even born, usually appearing on their parents’ social media platforms as hazy ultrasound images (LaFrance, 2016). Though these children may become aware of their digital footprint and online identity at an early age, they remain powerless in asserting their rights, with parents assuming the “dual role of parent and publisher” (LaFrance, 2016). This responsibility births an inherent conflict between a child’s right to privacy and a parent’s right to freedom of publication — putting children and their development at risk.
This article will provide a brief legal and practical analysis of this conflict. It begins by outlining the basis of children’s rights to privacy and parental rights to freedom of publication, before analysing the nuances of the conflict. The article concludes with some proposed legal solutions to the existing standoff and offers a list of best practices for parents engaged in sharenting (the word stems from parenting and sharenting) to consider. It is hoped that this work will contribute to a growing dialogue on the risks of sharenting and the importance of centring the best interests of children in all sharenting discussions.
What is Sharenting?
Sharenting is often described as any instance where an adult – in charge of a child’s well-being – “transmits private details about a child via digital channels” (Hsu, 2019). Though the term is conventionally used to refer to social media and common telecommunications channels, children’s information can also be input into other data tracking tools such as fertility applications, smart toys or personal cloud servers (Hsu, 2019).
Due to the widespread accessibility of technology and Internet access, the average child has a digital footprint before their first birthday (Meakin, 2013), typically in the form of an ultrasound image or birth announcement photo. This information is not restricted to images, with birthdays, names, geographical locations and schools all susceptible to data brokers who very often sell personal information to advertisers (Kamenetz, 2019).
Sharenting is a distinct feature of modern-day parenting which represents a step forward from family traditions (including baby books and family photo albums) which have migrated to the digital space (Blum-Ross, 2016). The danger with this evolved form of recording and sharing child development is that the audience is now wider than ever before, with information capable of going viral (whether intended or unintended) and sometimes falling into the hands of child predators. Furthermore, children are forever stamped with these “digital tattoos” (Blum-Ross, 2016) that they did not consent to, which may have a severe and negative impact on their development.
Sharenting may in some instances have positive benefits. For example, parents of children with disabilities may be able to share their experiences with each other to exchange ideas on how best to support their children (Meakin, 2013). Notwithstanding this, there are grave risks. Parents have lost custody due to harassing and humiliating their children to generate online views; Youtube frequently takes down videos starring children due to fear of exploitation; public information on children’s habits and whereabouts exposes them to paedophiles, child abductors and other criminals who target this vulnerable group (Kamenetz, 2019).
These risks are exacerbated by the permanence of online information, as posted pictures and videos have the potential to remain on the Internet forever without the consent of the child. Ultimately, it is difficult to quantify the effects of sharenting as they may not be immediate, both in terms of the harm done to young children and the permanence of data which can be exploited at a later date (Donovan, 2020).
Children’s Right to Privacy
Article 16 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) outlines that “no child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his or her honour and reputation” and that “the child has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.” (UNCRC, 1989).
Article 8 of the UNCRC further preserves the importance of a child’s identity while Article 19 states that all children have the right to protection (UNCRC, 1989). These rights, combined with relevant regional and domestic provisions such as the right to be forgotten outlined in Article 17 of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR, 2016), clearly reinforce the importance of privacy and data protection for a child’s development.
Recital 38 of the GDPR notes that ‘children merit specific protection with regard to their personal data’ (Donovan, 2020). This is due to their inability to comprehend the risks of data information sharing. The provision goes on to further acknowledge the prevalence of discrimination in the digital arena, stating that the effects of sharenting can last long into a child’s life – including into adulthood (Donovan, 2020). By normalising the surveillance of children, sharenting is a drastic intrusion of the right to privacy and private identity which robs children of the ability to determine their own image (Donovan, 2020).
Parental Rights to Free Expression
Balanced against a child’s right to privacy is their parents right to freedom of expression, guaranteed in Article 13 of the UNCRC (UNCRC, 1989). Parents are the primary protectors of their children – who are too young to possess the necessary maturity, experience and capacity (Shmueli, 2011) to make judgements or life decisions. Parents must therefore act to protect their child’s best interests, especially for “the most watched over generation in memory”.
It is also crucial that children are viewed as autonomous, independent beings and not merely saddled as attachments to their parents. If parent-children relationships are not viewed in this way, children’s interests may be obscured and subsumed by their parents’ own desires. This may mean that best interests are ignored through potentially impactful parental choices (Shmueli, 2011). The CRC acknowledges the importance of the family unit’s privacy, autonomy and harmony, but in this, children’s rights are often grouped with their parents, failing to specifically offer them protection.
Typically, parents will and shall play a supervisory and guardianship role over their children’s access to the online world. Parents frequently set limits on children’s Internet usage and expect schools and organisations to obtain permission before sharing pictures or information about their children online (Steinberg, 2017). However, children often have no “opt out” opportunity should they wish to remove themselves from the digital world (Steinberg, 2017). This failure to differentiate between the public and private world is a dangerous one and opens up the door to various forms of physical or online exploitation of a child (such as digital kidnapping – where children’s identities are stolen online by individuals portraying the child as their own).
There is a vital boundary between public and private life which is frequently crossed by modern-day parents who have altered the landscape of the world for developing children. The ability to share information online has presented new opportunities to parents while simultaneously generating novel responsibilities (Steinberg, 2019). Children have an interest in privacy, but this is often trumped by parental rights to dictate the upbringing of their children and utilise their right to free speech (Steinberg, 2017).
In sharing information about their children without consent, parents become the narrators of their child’s stories – leaving children vulnerable and unprotected. Child privacy is also child dignity and respect (Shmueli, 2011). It is likely that there will be a backlash from the current generation of young children who will seek to exert their autonomy and criticise their parents for creating damaging online personas without consent (Hopegood, 2020). The argument can be made that some parents often sacrifice their children’s privacy for the betterment of their own online presence (Donovan, 2020).
Legal and Policy Solutions
Parents and caregivers are now the distributors of information about their children to wide and vast audiences (LaFrance, 2016). This raises various legal questions over the rights that children should have to control their own digital footprint. There are ways to mitigate this problem such as the implementation of “the right to be forgotten” enshrined in Article 17 of the EU´s GDPR, which allows children to wipe their personal information from search engine results (LaFrance, 2016).
There have also been discussions around the development of guidelines to provide children with “veto power” over the posting of their online information and greater warning mechanisms for parents prior to sharing this data (LaFrance, 2016). Though these policies might help the challenge, they still do not entirely prevent sharenting from causing significant psychological damage to a child’s development.
As a result of the potential harm, sharenting attitudes and policies vary from country to country. In countries such as Germany and France, strict laws are in place which mandate public awareness campaigns and enforce fines when pictures are posted that are not in a child’s best interest (Hopegood, 2020).
Legal and Safety Risks Posed by Parental Oversharing
It is estimated that by 2030, more than 66% of identity fraud cases will have resulted from sharenting (Hsu, 2019). This idea is supported by AVG Antivirus who anticipate a growth in identity theft the more parents share their children online (Meakin, 2013). Uploading and sharing child information exposes children to the risk of photos going viral and falling into dangerous hands and fraudulent activity among other dangerous outcomes (Hopegood, 2020). In fact, Barclays Bank predicts that by 2030 $867 million will be lost to fraudulent information garnered from sharenting.
Broadly, there are four categories of harm that sharenting may lead to:
- Tangible harms – these include digital kidnapping, identity theft, fraud and data collection (Steinberg, 2019);
- Children’s rights violations – this includes infringements on the right to a private family life (Steinberg, 2019);
- Digital citizenship harms – these relate to the importance of child privacy and data protection (Steinberg, 2019);
- Intangible harms – these relate to the mental harms inflicted upon children which negatively affect their development.
Best Practices for Parents
Children’s early existence as online entities affects their ability to develop a self-awareness and sense of identity (Hsu, 2019). If parents want to adequately protect their children from the dangers of sharenting they must, at the very least, recognise their inherent risk in the first place. Ideally, parents could abstain from sharenting altogether. However, if they do engage in the act, it is important that they monitor the privacy settings of all the shared content (who owns it, who has access – this information can be viewed using third party websites such as mypermissions.org) and ensure that they are using search aggregators to discover what information can be collated about their child (Meakin, 2013).
It is important that parents develop into well-informed social media users, reading relevant privacy policies to ensure that they are using their maturity to make reasoned decisions for their children. Prior to sharing information, parents must exercise caution, refraining from: sharing explicit pictures of children (such as near naked pictures) which could attract dangerous attention; documenting physical locations which could increase the risk of children encountering physical harm; and detailing information which could otherwise be anonymised (such as on chat pages and support networks) (Steinberg, 2019).
If information has been shared, technological tools on many social sharing sites enable parents to select the specific audience for everything that is shared; hide content from Google’s search algorithm; and set up notifications to monitor where their posted information appears (Steinberg, 2019). Perhaps most importantly, parents must recognise that as children grow, they should be given the power to speak and be heard. What might seem appropriate to post regarding a child when they are infant may not be appropriate just a year later (Meakin, 2013).
Sharenting is a relatively new phenomenon; before policy makers find ways to widely regulate the activity, parents must protect children at all costs. Children should be treated with the respect and privacy they deserve, and their best interests should be protected at all times while recognizing that they are independent people too.
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Written by Vanessa Cezarita Cordeiro