The Real Risk of Posting Your Kids’ Pictures on Social Media

Since the summer of 2019, single mom Jacquelyn Paul has been documenting the life of her 3-year-old daughter on her TikTok account, Wren & Jacquelyn. The account has over 17 million followers, and each video consistently gets a few million views.

The account recently came under fire when some TikTokers noticed several troubling, “potentially creepy” people following the account, viewing the videos, and commenting. Some of the comments are undeniably concerning — older men calling Wren “a snack” and saying she looks “soft.” TikTokers accused Paul of exploiting her daughter and purposefully posting suggestive content.

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While there’s no evidence that Paul is consciously exploiting her daughter, the backlash has spurred many parents to examine their own social media and ask themselves what the real risks are to their children. So we asked the pros.

Three Major Risk Categories

There are three major risk categories associated with posting children on social media, Leah Plunkett, Author of Sharenthood and Faculty of Harvard Law School, tells SheKnows. The first, and arguably most concerning to parents, is the risk of harm to the child that’s criminal or dangerous. Identity theft, stalking, and more could fall into this category. (This is the risk that spurred the viral hashtag #saveWren.)

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The second is the risk of harm to the children’s current or future life opportunities that aren’t illegal, but not desired, says Plunkett. This includes things like data harvesting. “Once content is shared digitally, you have no way of knowing, and no way of controlling how it’ll be used and where it goes. [T]here’s a real risk that content you sharent [Plunkett’s term for how parents share things about kids] will wind up being folded into analysis by data brokers or other companies that are looking to learn about your children, and maybe try to market or sell to them,” says Plunkett.

The third risk is the hardest to identify, and likely might not be possible to identify for some time. It’s the risk to the child’s sense of self and identity in the world. “If you’re sharenting, you’re telling your children’s stories without their consent, and in some cases knowledge,” says Plunkett, who notes that whether you as a parent share to 50 people or 50 million, there will be a group of people out there who are learning about your child through your social media. That makes it harder for kids to go through the developmental process to figure out who they are and how they interact with the world.

Ken Ginsburg, MD, MSEd, Founder and Director of the Center For Parent & Teen Communication, echoes this idea. He told SheKnows that adolescents are developing their own identities, fundamentally asking the question “who am I”. If an adolescent feels that someone else is writing their story fo them when they’re already struggling to fit in, they may feel like they have to be the person portrayed. In the case of a parent posting all that is perfect about their child, the child might feel they need to be that perfect person, for better or worse.

It’s critical for a child “to write their own story and not accept someone else’s story,” says Ginsburg.

In the case of adolescents, Ginsburg also cautions parents to consider the risk that what they post could set their child up to be teased or cyber-bullied.

Benefits of Sharing

With the range of risks out there, it’s easy to begin to believe that all sharing is dangerous and should stop. While it’s true that “sharenting” is never truly risk-free, there are benefits to online sharing, including connection—due to COVID, virtual relationships are especially important—and community. Parents need resources and places to find advice, help, and spaces that normalize their journey.

Some of these benefits may outweigh the risks, notes Plunkett, but that’s for individual parents to decide.

Guidelines for Responsible Sharing

If you do decide to share, Plunkett suggests following a few guidelines before pressing “post”.

  1. Use the “Holiday Card” Rule of Thumb: Anything you’d feel comfortable sending to a boss or great aunt in a family holiday card or family newsletter (for those of us who remember those from pre-social media days) is probably safe to share online.

  2. Don’t post pictures of kids not fully dressed.

  3. Don’t post pictures that show where children live.

  4. Most importantly, before posting, ask yourself how your child would feel if they saw this posted — whether today or years from now. Plunkett notes that the child’s feelings don’t have to be the main deciding factor, but if the child would certainly hate the post, it’s probably not worth posting. Likewise, if your answer to that question is “I’m not sure” then it’s worth a conversation with your child. “Age doesn’t matter,” says Ginsburg. “If it’s uncomfortable for the child, then we have to take that at face value.”

If You’ve Shared Too Much

The reality is, many of us are probably taking a closer look at our own social media posts these days. The reality is that many of us (not all) will find something that we shouldn’t have posted. If that’s the case, there are a few things to do.

First, don’t panic, says Plunkett. “All parents are figuring out how to parent in a digital world. You did your best at the time and now you think your best can be different.”

Second, apologize to your child. Listen to what they have to say and then stop doing what you’re doing. That’s a good rule of thumb for all parent-teen communications, says Ginsburg, and certainly here, when there’s a chance to model healthy online sharing.

Third, consider removing the content, deactivating accounts, and taking a deep dive into the content you posted to see if it’s being repurposed or used in a way that feels inappropriate or harmful. Plunkett suggests going to the community standards of the site where the content is being shared and requesting that it be removed — something that might take time.

In certain states, parents can turn to state law, says Plunkett. Some states have better privacy protections for digital information about kids than others.

Not Just Influencer Parents

Most parents didn’t grow up with social media at their fingertips. Most of us had no social media footprint until our teen years (or later, in some cases!) It’ll be different for our children. Their digital lives are extensive, and we don’t know yet how that’ll look tomorrow or decades in the future.

All we know is that whether you share with a few people or a lot, it’s important to acknowledge that the risk is there, to use common sense before posting, and to make the choice that will keep your child happy and safe tomorrow … and decades thereafter.

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