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by Gianna Melillo | Sep. 16, 2022
For parents, grandparents and caregivers, snapping a photo of their child and sharing it on social media may seem like a routine, harmless act. After all, being proud of your child and wanting to share that pride with loved ones is a completely normal and largely universal feeling.
Unfortunately, this seemingly simple decision — to post a photo, video, or any other information about a child under 18 on social media or the internet in general — comes with a host of ethical and legal considerations, despite the innocent intention behind the action.
“Sharenting,” or parents sharing their child’s likeness or personal information on the internet, has grown in popularity alongside the advent of smartphones and social media. And this practice shines a light on the murky realm of children’s consent, digital data collection, targeted advertising, and real-world dangers resulting from parents’ online activities.
In a paper published in the Journal of Consumer Affairs, co-author Laurel Cook, a social marketing and public policy researcher at West Virginia University, outlined the risks sharenting poses to youth.
One major area of concern is the surreptitious collection of children’s data by technology companies, websites, and other internet users.
In an interview with Changing America, Cook stressed the intention of her work is not to shame parents about their online behaviors, but to better inform them of what the true online landscape is.
“It’s a lot more nefarious than I think [parents] realize and they are putting out this information that I would encourage them to consider to keep more private,” she said.
For example, posts that include identifiable data like the name of a child’s school, their teacher, any interests, their age or grade can all be used by advertisers and more dangerous actors.
While companies can use the data “to create psychological or behavioral profiles about what that child might want to purchase or their interests,” pedophiles, kidnappers, and human traffickers can also easily access the information, especially when it is not shared with a private, small group of individuals over an encrypted service.
The latter relationships, or parasocial relationships — where a media-user engages with a media persona — underscore the tangible dangers of posting children online.
“It’s kind of a little unnerving because obviously the child doesn’t know who these people are,” Cook explained, citing some cases where random people on the internet who feel this parasocial connection to the child try to intervene in real life.
Although these scenarios sit at the worst end of the spectrum, data collected for marketing purposes can also pose risks, as the information helps establish a permanent digital footprint for that child that they never consented to. In some cases, these footprints can begin before the child is even born.
Only one law currently regulates this area of the internet, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). COPPA was first introduced in 1998 when the internet was still in its infancy, and smartphones and social media had yet to take off.
The law does impose some requirements on what data websites are allowed to collect from children under age 13, but treats all other youth as adults online, and has not been updated since its implementation over 20 years ago.
“We really don’t have updated protections that are relevant to what kids and families are experiencing online right now,” said Rachel Franz, the Family and Education Manager at Fairplay, a children’s advocacy group, in an interview with Changing America.
It’s extremely risky to be treating a teenager as a full adult in any space, Franz said, adding “the internet is the only space that we do that in the United States.”
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In her paper, Cook and colleagues highlight some of the tactics companies use to encourage children and parents to grant them access to data. “There’s a lot of intentional design in apps and on websites that trick kids into giving their information themselves or trick parents into giving information,” Cook said.
For example, a company might opt to use bright colors in pop-ups asking to display personalized ads based on users’ data, while a different option where users can decline companies’ harvesting of their data might be in more muted colors, and easily overlooked.
Even when parents or caregivers don’t actively share their child’s information with social networks online, education apps or websites used at school could be collecting sensitive data and selling it to third-party vendors without users’ knowledge. Off-app activities can also be tracked.
The COVID-19 pandemic’s shifting of children’s activity online likely exacerbated this practice, as schools may disclose information about a child without the parents’ consent, Cook said. “Even if you control your own sharenting behaviors, I just want you to understand that there are other parties that are involved.”
“Sharenting really ushers children into digital life, whether they want it or not,” explained Franz.
And this decision by parents, grandparents or caregivers can lead to long-term psychological and mental health burdens for children.
According to Franz, research has shown most children of all ages express negative feelings about sharenting as it often leads to bullying and peer rejection, and can even conflict with children’s own expressed identities, providing them with a profile that may not reflect who they are.
“No matter what privacy protections you have on your Facebook or Instagram [sharenting] creates this digital footprint for kids, that right now there’s no real eraser button for,” she said.
Paradoxically, most social media platforms do not allow users under the age of 13 to create profiles. But sharenting negates the small protections these restrictions offer, and ramifications can be even greater for those monetizing their children’s likeness online.
Family or parent influencers post video blogs, photos, or other documentation of their lives onto platforms like YouTube, Instagram, TikTok and others. Advertising revenue and brand sponsorships allow these parents and caregivers to benefit monetarily from posting their children online.
“I really see this as a more extreme version of sharenting [that has] significantly increased over the past several years,” Franz said, adding Fairplay’s main concern is children’s healthy development in these scenarios.
Children need opportunities to play and live their lives without being constantly monitored or documented, she explained, noting the presence of a camera could limit creativity, exploration and real-life experiences.
“When we monitor those all of the time, children learn to expect that their experiences are always going to be posted online, which leads them to be self conscious and to moderate themselves in a way that maybe isn’t good for their growth and development.”
Children can then go on to base their self-value on views, likes or comments from strangers on the internet.
Even though a child under the age of 18 may give consent to their caregivers for their likeness to be used on a YouTube channel, for example, later in life they may change their mind. But the damage is likely already done.
“If the income for these family influencers comes mostly from the child, then I feel like that …is not in the child’s best interest,” said Cook. The power dynamic and age difference between the child and poster can also force a child into providing consent without understanding the full ramifications of the decision.
More attention has been paid to the ethical problems of using children for content after a viral TikTok video caused widespread backlash this month. In the clip, influencer Brittany Jade Szabo told her twin sons to go along with a story claiming their third brother had died, in an effort for the family to win a cruise trip.
Szabo has since made both her YouTube and TikTok accounts private and apologized to those she offended in a subsequent, now-deleted video stating, “We are extremely sorry to those who were hurt, triggered or offended by the context of that video.” The original video has also been deleted.
“I think that’s where things really have taken a big departure in sharenting, where now we’re recognizing that [parent influencing] is probably something that needs to be regulated,” Cook said.
Although most parents who sharent have innocent motivations, those in the business for economic reasons could be putting the child at risk.
Another example Cook uncovered in her research involved a mother creating a website showing her two young daughters trying on age-inappropriate outfits and modeling them, and subsequently profiting off the site.
“I just worry because she’s selling this content, literally selling this content on the website,” Cook said. There’s no telling what the long term repercussions will be for the girls when they reach the age of consent or mature into adulthood, she stressed.
“As a parent, I would never have imagined another fellow parent could do that.”
Updates to COPPA have been proposed, along with new legislation aimed at better safeguarding children online.
Both bills, the Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act or COPPA 2.0, and the Kids Online Safety Act are in the Senate, while advocates are pushing for a vote during this legislative session.
Under COPPA 2.0, any individual under the age of 18, not 13, would be considered a child for legal purposes and would be offered current COPPA protections. The update would also provide a data eraser button for individuals under the age of 18 so they can better control data being saved and data available online.
“An issue with sharenting is that when we create these digital footprints for kids, it also leads them and families — they’re susceptible to targeted marketing,” Franz explained. “And what COPPA 2.0 would do is really ban that surveillance marketing to kids and would really help them to stay safe from all the impacts of surveillance marketing.”
As both pieces of legislation passed through senate committees unanimously and the bills have received bipartisan support, Franz is hopeful the bills will become law and create real change.
Yesterday, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill into law restricting collection and sharing of kids’ data unrelated to the platforms’ services. The new rules will not go into effect until mid-2024.
In the absence of legal reform, Cook suggested parent influencers concerned about their children’s well-being shift their content to focus more on the parents’ own experiences and cut their children out of the content altogether.
Understanding the content’s main audience via analytics tools might also change parents’ perception of sharenting, should for instance, the majority of interactions come from single older men as opposed to young parents in similar scenarios.
“I would really want parents who are actively sharing information about their child to be a good steward” of that child’s data, Cook said.
“Even if they’re going to continue to make public posts, look at your analytics, let the numbers and let the evidence speak for itself. And if that doesn’t shock you into stopping, you know, I would suspect that it would.”
Parents and caregivers should also be aware of passive collection of children’s online data through apps, websites, or internet users, while schools should be cognizant of where they post potentially identifiable pictures of students online.
But this is not an easy feat, Franz cautioned.
“Parents and educators should not have to be experts because the platforms themselves should be designed with kids in mind,” she said, underscoring the need for legislative intervention.
“It’s not really fair that any of us have to be doing so much work around this when we really believe that the tech companies themselves should be prioritizing keeping kids’ data safe.”
Even if reforms are implemented, they’re not foolproof, and any posting of children online can impact their social, emotional, and mental health in the long run.
Ultimately, “children don’t get to choose to be on the internet, and what’s more, they don’t get to choose where online they show up,” Franz said.
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