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May 2017

Parental Sharing on the InternetChild Privacy in the Age of Social Media and the Pediatrician’s Role

Author Affiliations
  • 1Department of Pediatrics, University of Florida College of Medicine, Gainesville
  • 2Randall Children’s Hospital at Legacy Health, Portland, Oregon
  • 3Center on Children and Families, University of Florida Levin College of Law, Gainesville
JAMA Pediatr. 2017;171(5):413-414. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2016.5059

Social media use has dramatically increased, and children often have digital footprints long before they take their first step. Expert sources provide guidance for parents to understand social media, monitor their child’s use, and give advice on ensuring children’s healthy use.1 However, there is a paucity of research and resources to assist parents in understanding the potential ramifications and healthy ways that parents may share information about their children. The disclosures parents share online will follow their children into adulthood, and although there are benefits to this,2 there are also potential harms that are unrecognized by many parents. Harms may include identity theft, resharing pirated information on predator sites, sharing psychosocial information that should remain private, and sharing revealing or embarrassing information that may be misused by others.3 A study conducted by the Australian government’s eSafety commission found approximately 50% of images shared on pedophile sites were taken from social media sites.4

Most importantly, parental sharing can inadvertently take away a child’s intrinsic right to determine their own identity. Pediatric practitioners are poised to provide guidance and advocacy in this arena. The aim of this commentary is to explore potential legal solutions to this issue and offer a set of suggested guidelines for parents, practitioners, and other child well-being experts to consider in discussing sharing about children online. We conclude by providing a child-centered, public health–based model of education that protects a child’s right to privacy while also recognizing a parent’s right to free expression.

Parental Social Media Use

Social media use is common among parents and can serve many purposes. A Pew study showed that 75% of parents with children aged younger than 18 years who use the internet use social media including Facebook, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter.5 Facebook is the most popular method, with 75% of the parents checking their Facebook sites at least once a day. Almost half of parents felt they received social or emotional support, and almost one-third had posed parenting questions to their online networks in the last 30 days.

Bartholomew et al6 studied the use of social media by new parents in the context of social capital.6 They found that 98% of mothers and 89% of fathers indicated they uploaded photographs of their child to Facebook. Of these, 93% of mothers and 71% of fathers reported it was “very likely” to “likely” that the photographs would be acknowledged. Parents who reported that their friends were likely to comment on photographs they had posted of their child also reported greater satisfaction in the parenting role. Social media offers families many positive benefits and provides a meaningful way for parents to bring attention to important medical and social issues affecting children.

Parental sharing has given rise to the word sharenting, combining parenting with sharing. The Collins dictionary defines it as “the practice of a parent who regularly uses the social media to communicate a lot of detailed information about their child.” This is distinct from oversharenting, which takes the practice to an extreme and may cause unintended negative consequences. When parents share information about their children online, they may reveal children’s personal information and often do so without their children’s consent. These parents act as both the gatekeeper of their children’s personal information and as the narrator of children’s personal stories. This dual role of parents in their children’s online identity gives children little protection as their online identity evolves. A conflict of interest exists because children might one day resent the disclosures made years earlier by their parents.

Legal and Societal Ramifications

Society now must consider whether children have a legal or moral right to control their own digital footprint and discuss the novel conflict at the heart of parental sharing in the digital age. Privacy laws provide little guidance, prohibitions, or remedial measures for children needing privacy protection from their parents’ online disclosures.7 This reality is partly based on the idea that society generally accepts the notion that parents will do what is best for their child. However, digital sharing introduces new, underexplored risks to children, and some parents lack the experience, expertise, or caution to protect children from these harms.

Law and policy, both nationally and internationally, recognize that children do have privacy rights.8 The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child9 specifically enumerates the child’s right to privacy:

  • Article 16

  • No child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, home or correspondence nor to unlawful attacks on his or her honor and reputation.

  • The child has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

The United States has signed but not yet ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, making the United States the only United Nations member that is not a party to it. Currently, US laws do not address parental online sharing. While the United States has recognized that children have a right to privacy (from their parents), this right is not absolute.7 This interest only exists in limited contexts and is often overshadowed by First Amendment free-speech protections and the United States’ strong deference to parental autonomy with respect to child rearing.

Guidance and Advocacy

Pediatric practitioners can help parents navigate online sharing in a manner that balances this potential conflict and protects the best interest of the child. While parents often engage in online sharing with good intentions, a parent might share information that a child wished remained private. This guidance allows parents to exercise their rights to free expression while also giving consideration to a child’s interest in privacy.

Pediatricians can advocate for change by recognizing that there are inherent safety and moral risks involved in many of today’s common parental sharing practices. In response to these risks, the following suggested guidelines could become mainstays in societal discourse. Through a public health model, these practices could be shared with parents, educators, practitioners, policymakers, and the media.

Suggested Guidelines

Encourage the following for parents and families:

  1. Familiarize themselves with the privacy policies of the sites on which they share.

  2. Set up notifications to alert them when their child’s name appears in search engines: may use Google Alerts/Talkwalker Alerts.

  3. Parents who choose to share about their children’s struggles should consider opting to share anonymously.

  4. Use caution before sharing their child’s actual location or full name.

  5. Give their older children “veto power” for online disclosures.

  6. Do not post pictures that show their child in any state of undress.

  7. Consider the effect sharing can have on their child’s current and future sense of self and well-being.

Untangling the parent’s right to share his or her own story and the child’s right to enter adulthood free to create his or her own digital footprint is a daunting task. This issue is brand new, which necessitates future studies to guide parents, policymakers, and scholars through the conflict created when parents decide to disclose personal information about their children. The first children of social media are just now entering adulthood, college, and the job market. Today’s children require our voices in this important discussion.

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Article Information

Corresponding Author: Bahareh Ebadifar Keith, DO, MHSc, Randall Children’s Hospital at Legacy Health, 2801 N Gantenbein, Hospital Medicine Room 6804, Portland, OR 97227 (baharehkeith@peds.ufl.edu).

Published Online: March 27, 2017. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2016.5059

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: None reported.

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