“We are happy to announce that our little Kobe has arrived!” As I scroll through my Instagram feed while eating my morning cereal, I see a micro-influencer’s post introducing her newborn son to the world. He wears a little, white knit hat and sleeps in his cradle peacefully. He snuggles a brown toy cow, and an artistic board above him displays his name, birth weight and height. A series of hashtags like #instamum, #mummyblog and #newbaby pepper the caption. Cute, I think, fleetingly, and continue my never-ending scroll as my attention flits elsewhere. Nowadays, mommy blogging of any scale has become so normalized that I don’t even blink when I see a newborn on my Instagram homepage. Why should I? This woman is just an excited mom, a modest influencer, who wants to share with the world the fruits of her labor after nine long months of pregnancy. While some people may not like babies or children, for most of us, seeing these posts definitely doesn’t affect us negatively in any way. Personally, if I see a photoshoot of a cute baby or a baby interacting with a family pet, I smile and send it to my friends. This morning’s Instagrammer is not one of those insanely famous family vloggers, who market their children for content and income, often placing them in emotional situations on camera for profit, I reasoned. She’s just sharenting a little, and don’t we all know someone guilty of that?
At least, we all know that mom on Facebook, maybe even your own, who is constantly posting about her children: documenting their birthdays, mundane achievements, a trip to the ice cream parlor, Christmas morning present opening — you name it. If you’re lucky, the boy you’re crushing on has this type of mom, allowing you to do a little internet-stalking and find some more pictures of him. But is it not slightly worrying that all of his pictures, down to him running around in a diaper, are available with just a few clicks? Falling down the rabbit hole of these profiles almost seems voyeuristic; one can find a reverse chronological order of teenagers in graduation robes and diplomas, to the awkward, gangly puberty stage complemented with braces and glasses, even further to children kicking a football around in the rain, building a sandcastle on the beach and, finally, grainy pictures of infants in the bathtub with rubber ducks.
Interestingly enough, 77% of parents share their children’s photos on social media. But seldom are these suburban moms “exploiting their children for content,” as we hear about family vlog channels that are under fire. No, these are just regular moms innocently sharing their families, lives and, often, underage children. Their posting can be motivated by a variety of reasons: to reach out to fellow moms, to normalize the struggles of parenting or to keep family updated. That’s not a crime, is it? The act does, however, seem to be losing steam. A new wave of technology-savvy parents, including some celebrities, have taken drastic steps to insure their children’s online privacy — from outright refusing that anyone post a picture of their child before a certain age to blurring or covering the child’s face in a post. This course of action may seem to be dramatic and unnecessary for some, but not to me.
Many others agree with my stance. The popular TikTok and social media influencer Sarah (@mom.uncharted), for example, has garnered more than 15 million likes on her videos, all discussing children’s right to privacy in this age of social media. A mother herself, Sarah is passionate about sharing the dangers of posting children online and critiques parents who do so. On her page, she discusses how children have a right to digital autonomy. Not only is posting public content of your children against their consent, she argues, but it is also a threat to their safety. She reasons: If you would not print out a picture of your child, write about their birthday or their likes and dislikes and hand it to strangers on the street, why would you post the same thing on social media?
While Sarah’s content focuses on family vlog channels and disturbing accounts of mothers posting themselves breastfeeding their children just to promote and sell adult content, I actually find there to be something even more sinister. Though we can see the fault in mega-influencers posting public photos of their children, none of us would really care if a friend or family member shared pictures of their child on social media, even if their account was public. They aren’t exploiting their children like the women and families being called out by Sarah. They probably have a maximum of a few hundred followers, most of whom they know … or do they? Eight out of ten parents have followers on social media that they’ve never met. Are these moms not doing the same thing Sarah critiques, just for a smaller audience?
My mom posted a ton of embarrassing pictures of me on her Facebook, and I turned out just fine. Well, yes. While I agree that a parent posting pictures of their children is usually nothing more than mildly annoying or embarrassing for the children themselves, the rapid progression of AI has made posting children on social media highly unsafe. With regard to the amount of predators lurking on the Internet, it’s become very easy for a picture to fall into the wrong hands. Reports state that predators can use deepfake technology to create pornographic content generated from pictures of children that they find. “A simple video excerpt of a child available on social media, or a video of children taken in a public place, could turn them into potential victims of child pornography,” quotes Judge Benoit Gagnon, a Quebec court judge who sentenced a man to prison for using artificial intelligence to create synthetic images of child pornography. The FBI also attests that they’ve received multiple reports about minors who have had benign pictures and videos of them altered into explicit content, which are publicly circulated for sexual gratification or a harassment and sextortion scheme.
It seems as though no form of social media is safe, not even something as seemingly harmless as Pinterest. As NBC reports, men on Pinterest are creating sex-themed image boards of little girls. Pinterest’s recommendation engine is making it easy to curate this content, potentially exposing young girls to pedophiles. Innocent pictures about which parents may not think twice before sharing — like their children in bathing suits, ballet or gymnastics leotards, doing the splits, dancing in their bedrooms or sticking their tongues out — were pinned by men to boards labeled “sexy little girls” and “guilty pleasure.” In fact, Democrats and Republicans are working together on legislation to curb the sexual exploitation of minors online. Fifty-four attorney generals also sent a letter to the U.S. Congress, asking members to intervene.
It is not only sexual depravity that is a threat, but also identity theft (in extreme cases, stealing one’s Social Security number and running up credit on their name) and digital kidnapping. Digital kidnapping is “a form of identity theft wherein people steal images of a child, then pretend that child is their own (by posting the stolen images to their own social media accounts).” Forecasts from Barclay’s in the UK indicate that by 2030, parents’ act of uploading photos online will be responsible for two thirds of all identity fraud cases. While sharing pictures of a child on a private account seems to be a better step, those pictures can still be redistributed and circulated. The best way to share pictures of children would be privately to family members or friends. Some parents even watermark pictures of their children. It is not expressly the parents’ fault that their children’s photos are being used inappropriately. However, with the amount of dangerous people in the world, it’s best for parents to exercise caution.
Even in the best of cases, children may develop resentment when they grow up and become aware of the lack of privacy they have been afforded. The baby that was photographed swimming completely naked for the iconic album cover of Nirvana’s Nevermind (1991) ended up filing a lawsuit against the band when he grew up, citing that the label profited from child pornography, and that he, at the age of four months old, had never consented for that picture to be taken nor shared. And that was just for one picture. The average parent shares up to 1,500 pictures of their child online before their fifth birthday, increasing the risk of future resentment and unhappiness exponentially.
Some may counter argue that problems like deepface editing and identity theft are not exclusive to children — anyone with a digital presence could face the same thing. Should we all just erase our online presence and not post pictures at all? Of course not. To me, the difference is that adults consent and choose to post pictures of themselves on their own accounts, public or private, at their own will. Children, on the other hand, do not consent to having these pictures shared and posted on someone else’s account. They have no say in the level of publicity or who the followers and viewers are. Children should be in control of their digital story and footprint the same way older generations were allowed to be.
After doing my research for this piece, I again stumbled across a light-hearted video of a toddler in a diaper chasing bubbles in his backyard. While it was undoubtedly very cute, a part of me was immediately struck by the horror of this video being so easily accessible on the Internet. It already had 30,000 likes. Would this baby end up on the wrong kind of websites? Was this being used for data mining? Was there someone digitally kidnapping him and passing him off as their own? Will this baby grow up and be embarrassed the world has seen him in a diaper? The thoughts whirled around my head. As time and technology progresses, we must continue to be mindful of protecting minors not only physically, but digitally as well.
Statement Columnist Myrra Arya can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.