Digital emancipation: What are the rights of children of the Instagram age?

Babies born today will, most likely, make their Instagram debuts from being just a few hours old. But what happens when they realise a traceable archive of their childhood exists on their parents’ social media?

  • Last updated May 27, 2020 10:49:11 AM
  • By Elizabeth Hurst
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The first generation of children to have their earliest moments plastered over Facebook have grown up. With this, there have been a few isolated instances of children objecting to what their parents have posted about them—so much so that they have taken the matter to court.

In a landmark case from 2016, a woman in Austria sued her parents in order to force them to remove childhood pictures of her from Facebook. The unnamed 18-year-old stated that the pictures were embarrassing and a violation of her privacy, telling Austria’s Heute newspaper: “They knew no shame and no limits... they didn’t care if I was sitting on the toilet or lying naked in the cot, every moment was photographed and made public.”

On the other side of the debate, her father told her that as he had taken the photographs, he had the right to do with them as he pleased. More than 500 pictures of the woman were shared on Facebook to around 700 friends, leading to her suing her parents for infringing on her right to privacy.

The 2016 Austrian court case is an extreme example of the wider movement of people, especially young people, not trusting social media. A study found that 34% of Generation Z (defined as those born from the mid-1990s to early 2000s) say they’re permanently quitting social media, and 64% are taking a break from it.

The research also discovered that 41% of young people are made to feel anxious, sad or depressed by social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. These “social natives” have never known anything but the world of social media, and thus their childhoods have been greatly impacted by it, often without their expressed permission.

Parents make many decisions for their kids that undoubtedly have effects on them later in life. After all, a baby can’t tell you whether it prefers breast milk over formula, what name it likes... or opt in to being featured on your Instagram. But in the case of choosing whether to put images of your children on social media, the long term consequences are yet to be discovered.

The rise of smartphones and social media have undoubtedly changed almost every element of modern life, including how families interact with each other. In the UK, a recent survey undertaken in conjunction with Parent Zone found that by the time a child turns five, the average parent will have posted 1,498 pictures of them on social media. The survey also found that 85% of parents had not reviewed their Facebook privacy settings in more than a year, and 79% wrongly believed that strangers could not see pictures of their children. More than a third of parents even admit that over 50% of their Facebook friends are only online friends who they would not call a “true friend”, or say hello to if they bumped into them on the street.

Though it may seem innocent for parents to post a few pictures of their offspring, there are many potential issues that can have both short and long-term effects. One is the possible mental health implications of exposing children to social media at an early age. “It’s certainly an issue which I have seen increasingly in my practice over recent years and it is a cause of concern and anxiety for teens,” said Genevieve von Lob, a psychologist and author of Happy Parent, Happy Child: 10 Steps to Stress-free Family Life.

“It’s understandable that as parents we adore our kids and love to share as much about them as possible,” von Lob said. “But by sharing endless pictures, you are creating a ‘digital tattoo’ that could stay with them for the rest of their lives.”

There are many reasons why children might later object to this “digital footprint”. When they become teenagers, this material may be accessible by their peers, and provide a source for bullying. As they get older, it can cause embarrassment.

Do they really want future friends, partners, university admissions boards, co-workers and potential bosses to be able to look through their online photo albums? Many millenials are now seeing photographs and posts (thanks to apps like Timehop and Facebook’s ‘On this day’ feature) that they shared in their teenage years. They are a mixture of amused and mortified—but whereas the cringe-worthy statuses posted in your youth can be easily deleted, it’s a completely different story when the material was posted without your knowledge, and is out of your control.

There are also some darker implications to consider. Though you can make use of social media privacy settings, sharing something online always has the inherent risk that it is accessible to people that you may not want to see it. Though you may proudly post photographs of your toddler potty training, in the bath or happily playing naked on the beach, as Pink did on her Instagram to general outrage, there is always the chance that people may see and use these images not-so-innocently.

As facial recognition software advances, the ability to create deepfakes is becoming easier and social credit systems have been developed in countries like China, one could argue that the less information about you online, the better. At the very least, it should be up to the person themselves to decide for themselves, instead of having that decision taken away by a parent or guardian.

Currently, France leads the way in legally preventing future harm to children because of their parents’ online choices. Under French privacy law, anyone who publishes and distributes images of someone else without their explicit consent—including parents posting pictures of their own children—can face up to one year in prison or a fine of up to €45,000 (£38,000).

The law rests on the principle that the images you post of a non-consenting child will endure in the future, and thus may distress or shame the child in the years to come. This law was promoted in 2016 by a viral online campaign urged parents to cut back on posting images of their children, as the French police suggested that they could attract sexual predators, and one legal expert even warned that parents may face future lawsuits from their kids for violating their privacy.

There is currently nothing explicit within UK law that prevents parents from posting images of their children online. In theory, Article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998 could be applied in this situation. It describes the right to private and family life, namely the right that protects your dignity and autonomy (your right to be independent and make your own decisions about your life), including the respect for your private and confidential information, the storing and sharing of data about you, and the right to control the spreading of information about your private life, including photographs taken covertly.

Assuming that photographs taken of you as a child depict your private life, it follows that this could infringe your right to privacy and the ability to make your own decision on this matter at an age when you are able to understand it.

The United Nations warned in June 2018 that parents who share pictures of their children on social media are putting their human rights at risk. Joseph Cannataci, the UN’s special rapporteur, said that “strong guidelines” were needed to preserve the rights of children whose parents choose to click upload.

He said, “We’ve already seen the very first cases of kids suing their parents because of the stuff they have posted on Facebook about them… how do you deal with parents who insist on taking a video of their kids every single day and posting it on Youtube every single day?”

The rise of “Mummy’ influencers and family vloggers provides a case study into just how far this can go. Families can amass millions of followers and earn money just by putting photos and videos of their lives—and their children’s lives—online. They can become celebrities in their own right, before their children even understand what a celebrity is.

Though this can be transformative for the children through the wealth and opportunities it can generate, it is not without its potential drawbacks. Parents face scrutiny for their private actions and decisions, as found by popular UK family vloggers The Saccone-Jolys who faced backlash from some of their 1.9 million YouTube subscribers. They were accused of child abuse after disciplining their two-year-old with a cold shower.

How can a child understand the distinction between what moments are for an audience of millions, and what remains private? In some cases, the lines have been blurred. One particular case is that of the YouTube account FamilyOFive in which two parents used their children to make viral prank videos for their 750,000 subscribers. The parents were charged with child neglect, sentenced to five years probation and lost custody of two of their five children. Though the parents claimed that the children were “acting” in the pranks, the evidence of emotional and physical harm was broadcast for all to see.

Parenting coach Ray FitzGerald who runs the site “Raise a Legend” and doesn’t post his daughter’s name or age online tells his audience to follow the “three P rules of posting”. These include privacy (“Make sure your privacy settings aren’t public. Treat your child’s private images like your Social Security number and don’t hand it out like digital candy”); perception (“If you wouldn’t want a similar picture of yourself shared, then you likely shouldn’t share one of your child”); and permission (a rule he admits mostly applies to older kids). While these alliterative rules are easy to remember and make sense, it begs the question—why don’t explicit laws exist to protect our children’s right to privacy online?

What do mum and dad think?

Ben, dad to Arden (6 months)

I’m a proud parent but I don’t post anything—not even words—about my daughter. A combination of (in my opinion) oversharing by other parents and the way privacy and data is handled these days has led me to be more guarded about what I let people into. So I’ve adopted this stance with how I share my daughter with the world.

I also like her being able to create her own social footprint, and not have people that have never met her—and that includes some estranged friends and family members, not just strangers—feel like they know all about her. We have a couple of private message groups to share cute or landmark moments with close family, but I don’t feel comfortable posting this content on Facebook—even if my privacy settings were restricted.

Susannah, mum to Lucas (6)

I don’t really use social media as much as I used to but I used to post quite a lot when Lucas was younger. I just make sure I’m private on Instagram and Facebook, and I’ve narrowed my friends list down to make sure it’s just people I know.

As I got older I’ve realised I’m happy just living my life for myself and not other people whereas in the past—as a younger, less-secure person—I needed likes to feel like I had a good life instead of now just knowing I’ve got one. It’s not that I specifically don’t want Lucas on social media any more, it’s just I’m happier focusing on spending time with him rather than posting about him. I think a private life is better and safer too as you never know who’s looking.

Lucy, mum to Philippa (3) and Jessica (1)

I like sharing the activities I’m doing with the kids or things they have done that have made me smile as I know it brightens my day and others. However, I’m aware that sharing can create problems. I try to only post to people who I’m friends with. On Instagram, my account is private so I can approve who can see my posts. Just to be sure of privacy, I try not to post anything about the kids that would embarrass them. As they are getting older, I’m definitely reducing the amount that I post about them as they start to have their own little identities. I’m also getting a little bit tired of social media, although I do like the memory hops, which of course won’t be there for me to look back on if I stop!

One of my frustrations with social media is that people only really share the good stuff and this is especially so for parents and their kids. I try to post some of the reality (although not all) while at the same time being careful of not complaining!

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