Photos of children and grandchildren used to be reserved exclusively for mantles and wallets. Family and friends would go years without seeing those distant to them, and the phrase “you were THIS big when I last saw you,” followed by a squeeze of the cheeks was a rite of passage at each family reunion. Gone are those days. Facebook and other social media sites have allowed estranged family and friends to keep up to date with those they don’t see on a daily basis. However with this benefit of interconnectivity has come an embarrassing and perhaps dangerous violation of the rights of children.

Parents commonly post information, pictures, and videos of their child on social media in order to share with relatives, brag about their child, receive advice from other parents, or simply feel that they are not alone in the struggles of parenting. This phenomenon, known as “sharenting,” has surpassed simply showing a person a photo from their wallet. Sharenting exposes the personal lives of children to countless others across social media platforms. Some parents document their child’s battle with disease. Some simply document the daily life of their child. Some parents even stand to make a lot of money from posting their children on sites such as Facebook and Instagram, as corporations will pay for product placement and endorsements. Unfortunately, parents can be incentivized to publicly compromise their child’s dignity on social media. More extreme and embarrassing content attracts more followers, which means a higher payday for the owner of the account (i.e. the parent).

In any case, parents are able to shape their child’s online identity before the child is capable of assenting to being posted on the internet, let alone understanding what the internet is. Disclosures made online often go beyond the parents’ intent. Sharenting can expose children to an arraignment of issues such as embarrassment, bullying, identity theft, and pedophilia and can follow their children into adulthood.

As these problems have manifested, a tension has emerged between a child’s right to privacy and a parent’s right to choose how to raise his or her child. Free speech also has a role to play. While many parents maintain that they have the right to narrate their child’s online story, others believe that parents not only have a responsibility in protecting children from the negative effects of online exposure, but the responsibility to ensure the child’s autonomy and broad right to privacy. Once capable of understanding online exposure, children seem to echo the latter sentiment as well. A 2016 study of 249 pairs of parents and children showed that children were “twice as likely to report that adults should not ‘overshare’ by posting information about children online without permission.”

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule helps protect children from exposing their own privacy online, but allows for such exposure with parental consent. In the United States, parents are the gatekeepers of their children’s privacy and online content is seemingly regulated only by the parent’s sense of appropriateness. Is this enough?

In France and other countries, stricter laws allow grown-up kids to sue their parents for breaching their right to privacy as children. The United States could adopt such measures, but do we really expect or even want people to sue their parents? Even if the answer is “yes,” should we really allow compromising content to remain online until the child is old enough—or angry enough—to sue? Perhaps the answer lies in government oversight. However, such regulation may be too difficult to oversee and is likely to encounter First Amendment issues. Requiring the social media platforms themselves to police these matters would likely run afoul of these same issues.

For now, it seems as though parental education is the most realistic option to protect children from sharenting. Many parents do not contemplate the dangerous consequences when posting a picture of their baby on Facebook, or even that their baby has an independent right to privacy. Some have published advice for parents to follow, like not sharing publicly or not sharing a child’s location, but the effectiveness of such publications is not yet known. Whatever the solution may be, it begins with an understanding of a parental duty to protect children from the dangers of social media and to encourage the autonomy of every person, even children. As Sigmund Freud put it, “I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.”

Jackson Smith

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