Like millions of parents, I post pictures of my kid on Instagram. When she was born, her father and I had a brief conversation about whether it was “dangerous” in a very nebulous sense. Comforted by the fact that I use a fake name on my account, we agreed to not post nudie pics and then didn’t give it much more thought. Until recently.
As she gets older, and privacy on social media dominates the news, I’m revisiting this conversation. Am I invading my daughter’s privacy by sharing her kooky dance moves or epic Nick Nolte hair? Will she feel violated when she’s older? My generation had to contend with mom showing an embarrassing baby photo to our prom date. Is an awkward Instagram picture just today’s equivalent, or does the fact that that the photo can be revisited again and again, by potentially hundreds or even millions of eyes, change things?
There’s a growing amount of scholarship on this issue and the results are somewhat comforting: Most kids aren’t opposed to parents sharing pictures of them, but like most human beings, they would like their feelings to be considered. “Ask your kids’ permission, at least sometimes,” says Sarita Schoenebeck, an expert on how families use technology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “Pay attention to what they do and don’t like and respect that.”
Schoenebeck and her colleagues recently surveyed 331 parent-child pairs to examine both parents’ and children’s preferences about what’s fair game to share on social media. Overall, the kids, who ranged in age from 10 to 17, didn’t mind when parents posted “positive” content, Schoenebeck’s team reported. Kid-approved posts included pictures showing them engaged in hobbies like sports, or depicting a happy family moment. Embarrassing pictures, on the other hand, were not appreciated. (No “naked butt baby pictures,” said one kid). The team reported its findings in 2017 at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Denver.
Kids also expressed being aware of their own privacy in ways adults often don’t give them credit for. Photos with potential boyfriends or girlfriends were not acceptable. Content deemed too candid (such as “what they are really like at home” and “private stuff”) was also off-limits.
This self-awareness was reassuring to me. Much of being a kid is playing literal and figurative dress-up; it’s figuring out what’s OK and not OK, personally, as a family member and as a citizen of the world. I’ve worried that today’s online ecosystem might quash the freedom to do this important experimentation. Kids seem to be tuned into this dilemma too.
Most parents thought they should probably ask their kid’s permission before posting more often. Indeed, they were right: The kids thought parents should ask for permission more often than they do. Previous work by Schoenebeck is in line with that sentiment: Children were twice as likely as parents to report that adults shouldn’t “overshare” by posting about children online without permission.
The issue of kid privacy extends beyond posting pictures, notes computer security and privacy expert Franziska Roesner. “Until what age do you track location on their phone, or even use the camera function on a baby monitor?” says Roesner, of the University of Washington in Seattle. “It’s an evolving space without clear answers.”
It’s too early to say how kids growing up in the current technology climate will feel about their parents’ sharing in hindsight. But a small study by Schoenebeck offers some insight. The researchers asked college students to reflect on their own potentially embarrassing teenage Facebook posts. The students valued the authenticity of their own historical content even if it was potentially embarrassing, Schoenebeck says. As one study participant put it: “When I look at [my old content], it’s kind of like ugh, like ‘yikes!’ [But] if someone finds it I’ll just be like, ‘yeah, I had a thing with song lyrics as my status when I was 15 years old. Get over it.’”
But just because kids didn’t mind their teenage posts surviving online, that doesn’t mean they won’t mind what you post about them. My daughter isn’t old enough yet to say, “You’re not the boss of me.” But I know that time is coming. Before that happens, I plan to start asking her permission about what I post about her and give her the option of deleting old posts.
Given the myriad other concerns parents have about kids and social media — from bullying to body image issues to what potential employers or colleges might see — asking our kids’ permission about what we share seems like an easy, thoughtful step to take.
Laura Sanders is away on maternity leave. Rachel Ehrenberg is a Boston-based science journalist and former reporter at Science News, with degrees in botany and evolutionary biology. She has raised many plants and is now trying to raise a human being.