How to Protect Your Children's Privacy in the Era of Online 'Sharenting'

Law professor Stacey Steinberg says online baby pictures last forever—and may be seen by strangers

Parent browsing on computer while sitting next to child on iPad. iStock-528922090, GettyImages-174988578

Kids keep you in the moment. There’s nothing like a 2-year-old playing with a roll of toilet paper to focus your attention on the here and now. And if you can get a little attention from friends and family by sharing those precious parenting moments on Facebook so much the better, right?

But after her third child was born in 2013, Stacey Steinberg, a law professor, forced herself to take a step back and think about the implications of online sharing for kids.

Steinberg made “sharenting”—a slightly snarky term for the way parents share details about their children’s lives online—a major focus of her academic work at the University of Florida, discussing practical safety concerns and a child’s right to privacy in an online world where every post by a parent becomes part of a child's permanent record.

Steinberg has published a paper on the topic in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics (in collaboration with pediatrician Baharah Keith) and a solo article in the Emory Law Journal. She recently shared her sharenting best practices with Consumer Reports.

(This interview has been condensed and edited.)

What is the concern with "sharenting," for parents who aren’t familiar with the term?
We stop hospitals from over-sharing about kids through HIPAA [the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which safeguards medical records.] We protect their education records through FERPA [the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which protects the privacy of student education records.]

But our kids have no say in how we, their parents, share information about them. With sharenting there's this unique conflict, because we act as the gatekeeper of our child's personal information, but we're also the party that’s sharing it. This didn't exist 10 or 20 years ago.

What is your advice on sharenting?
My research is not about stopping people from sharenting. It's about how to share and how to think about sharing. My first suggestion is pretty straightforward: Be aware of the privacy settings on the sites that you use.

Following closely on that, parents should consider setting up notifications to alert them when their child’s name appears in a Google search result.

Next, be careful about sharing pictures of your kids in any state of undress. When I had a new baby, I put lots of cute pictures that might have had a rear end in it. [She laughs.] I really wouldn't have thought twice about sharing it, because most people just think it's adorable. But I would probably not do that now that I've done some more research, and I see what the potential risks are.

What online dangers should parents know about?
There have been a lot of reports that pedophile image-sharing sites are data-mining those pictures, and they're being used for inappropriate purposes.

My next guideline stems from a similar concern: I think that parents should use caution before sharing their child’s actual location.

Your concerns go beyond safety, as well.
As I worked through it, I saw that there were, really, two separate issues. There was the child's safety issue: Are you putting information out there that could endanger your child from pedophiles or whatever?

But there’s another group of practices that address the question of a child’s privacy, in the same way that we respect an adult’s privacy. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, for instance, has long recognized that children have a right to privacy.

What should parents do out of respect for their child’s privacy?
Some parents share anonymously—they don't use their children's name in their posts. This is something that’s especially important if you're talking about your child's behavioral problems or other private matters.

And that stems from a larger issue: Parents should give their child “veto power” over online disclosures. That includes images, quotes, and talking about their challenges, but even seemingly positive things like accomplishments.

A few months ago my 6-year-old drew a really beautiful picture of Martin Luther King, and it said something like, “I hope that Martin Luther King's dreams always come true.” And he brought it home from school and hung up it up. I sent it to the family, and thought it was just really cool.

I ended up posting it on Facebook, but first I talked to him about it.

I said, “Hey, Do you want Grandma to see this? Do you want your aunt and uncle to see this?" His understanding of what I was asking him was obviously nowhere near as well informed as an older child's would be—posts are essentially permanent, and it’s hard for him to grasp the implications of that—but he can understand the idea of when you're proud of something, do you want to share it?

Or maybe you don’t want to share it.

Portrait of Prof. Stacey Steinberg

Stacey Steinberg Stacey Steinberg

Is there a kind of “golden rule” of sharenting?
For me, the big one is just consider your child's well-being, both now and into the future, before you share.

And some of the considerations can be subtle. I was really struck by an idea that I heard on the WYNC public radio show "Note to Self," that I don't want to curate my child's identity for them before they have a chance to define themselves online.

Let's say you're curating a set of pictures and stories that show your child as articulate and well-spoken, and then as a teenager they’re kind of shy. They're going to meet people who have already formed an opinion of them. So it can make their shyness even harder for them because they’re fighting against these expectations.

What can parents do now about materials they've already posted?
One of the most helpful things that I did as a parent, having done this research, was to spend more than a few hours going back through everything I had ever shared, trying to look at those disclosures through the lens that I have now.

There are some things that I didn't want to necessarily remove. In a lot of ways Facebook has become our baby book, and so if you delete everything, you've deleted a lot of memories that you might not have stored elsewhere. But Facebook gives you the option of changing the privacy settings so that only you can see it.

I can’t be sure that’s going to protect my children from some of the data mining issues. But at least my child is not going to stumble across embarrassing baby pictures when they get old enough to search.

Is there a lesson in this for kids, too?
Yes. There's been such an effort by society trying to regulate how our kids act online, and so little has been focused on how we act ourselves, as parents.

I think that if we're not respecting their privacy, it's very hard for them to understand why they should respect the privacy of other people, a person in their class or another peer.

For instance, we all want our teenagers never to post pictures of other people without their consent. I think the best way to help them understand that is to value their ability to give consent. We want them to think about these things.

Protecting Your Online Privacy

It doesn't matter if you're on your phone or your laptop, your personal information can leave a digital trail of where you go online. On the "Consumer 101" TV show, Consumer Reports' expert Thomas Germain explains to host Jack Rico what to do to protect your online privacy.

Allen St. John

I believe that technology has the power to change our lives—for better or for worse. That's why I’ve spent my life reporting and writing about it for outlets of all sorts, from newspapers (such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times) to magazines (Popular Mechanics and Rolling Stone) and even my own books ("Newton’s Football" and "Clapton’s Guitar"). For me, there's no better way to spend a day than talking to a bunch of experts about an important subject and then writing a story that'll help others be smarter and better informed.