Is "Sharenting" Depriving a Generation of Privacy?
When I was in elementary school, we had an annual internet safety seminar. The rules were pretty standard, never give out any personal information, only use websites the school had designated as safe, and stay skeptical of information online. At the end of every course, we received a green, laminated computer license which we had to carry any time we used a school computer. In hindsight, these lessons may have been more scare tactics than educational but they did prime myself and my classmates to be suspicious of the internet. To us, this digital landscape was the Wild West, a place with a lot of potential and excitement but also a complete lack of sufficient regulation. Of course, this was before the advent of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
Nowadays sharing personal information online is the language of the internet, it's the very foundation of social media. And while most of us will probably never fully understand the extent of data that internet companies collect, store, and share about us, we consent to these practices every time we use a service, make an account, or log in. It would appear most adults have accepted this as the new norm — approximately 60% of Americans say they do not think it is possible to go through daily life without having data collected by companies or the government. However, this resignation to a world without privacy often results in parents becoming the overeager creators of their children's digital footprint and this raises serious questions about consent and the right to be forgotten.
34% of children in the United States start their digital footprint in utero. By age 2, 82% of them will have an online presence. And, according to a report from the UK Children's Commission, by age 13, roughly 1,300 photos and videos will have been posted of a child by their parents to social media. This trend is known as "sharenting" and as it has grown in popularity, so too has its number of critics, many of these being the unsuspecting children being posted about. A recent NPR podcast asked fifth-graders how they felt about their parents posting photos of them to social media and many said that they found it "embarrassing" and cited frustration over "not being asked" for permission. Worse still, the internet has proven time and time again that once these images are posted it can be almost impossible to completely delete them. Parents who posted photos of their children on Flickr in 2005 discovered that they were being used to train surveillance algorithms in 2019.
And the negative effects of "sharenting" don't end there. Barclays forecasts that, by 2030, it will account for 2/3 of identity fraud, as information about children can be gradually collected, stored, and then used to open accounts as soon as the person turns 18. Not to mention the phenomenon of lucrative child social media and YouTube stars which raises concerns of exploitation and child labor protections.
So what can be done? The answer isn't simple and requires efforts from social media companies, governments, and most importantly parents.
Many countries have begun building legislation to protect children's digital privacy. Much of this policy is informed by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, a framework adopted in 1990 by virtually every country except for the United States. In the United Kingdom, this has led to the so-called "age-appropriate design code", which demands all online services that are likely to be accessed by children will need to be transparent about how they store and share data. This places an onus for "sharenting" upon the social media companies themselves. On the other hand, in France and the Netherlands responsibility is placed upon the parent. Both countries have allowed children to sue their parents if they post photos of them without their explicit consent. Additionally, individuals within the EU are guaranteed the right to data erasure or the "right to be forgotten" under GDPR, meaning if children want their photos deleted, it can be done so completely.
In the United States, regulation hasn't been so quick. The original Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 is virtually unchanged, meaning the laws have not been updated to reflect the advent of social media or the data economy. Essentially, children today have as much protection as I did when I received my computer license in 2006 and all I used it for was the Disney Channel website. While legislation is constantly in the pipeline, nothing definitive has been passed, meaning this will become an even bigger problem in the future. Data concerns are not new to the social media space but this is an issue with significant implications for people at the beginning of their lives who may want to establish their digital identity on their own terms.
For now, the best we can do is educate parents about acting responsibly and encourage them to talk to their kids about how or when they want to appear online. Privacy isn’t dead, we just need to fight for it.