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What Parents May Not Realize When They Post About Their Kids Online


Scroll through Facebook or Instagram, you will see tons of photos of children - photos posted by their parents. One British study found parents post about 1,500 images of their kids on social media before those kids turn 5 years old. In this week's All Tech Considered, we and NPR's Life Kit are looking at sharenting, what moms and dads may not realize when they post online about their kids and what their kids have to say about it.


KELLY: Let's bring in Anya Kamenetz. She is a host of the Life Kit parenting podcast, and she's been taking a look at sharenting and children's privacy. She's going to walk us through the facts and, I hope, give us some advice, which I could certainly use. Anya, welcome.


KELLY: Hey there. So my kids, who are now teenagers, lectured me about this early on, and their lecture boiled down basically to, don't even think about posting pictures.


KELLY: But I do see my friends doing it all the time and posting about kids, you know, from very young, still in diapers, all the way up through their teenagers.

KAMENETZ: Sure. And, I mean, I've done the same myself. But, you know, we don't often get to hear about the kids' perspective. So that's why we were so interested. When we did the NPR Student Podcast Challenge earlier this year, we heard from Chelsea Whitwer's fifth grade class at Westchester Elementary in Kirkwood, Mo. And here's what they said.


CHELSEA WHITWER: OK. So what do you guys think about your parents posting on the Internet?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: I don't really like it because, like, I didn't ask and it's sometimes an embarrassing photo.

WHITWER: What about you? How do you feel about your parents posting on the Internet?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: If it's, like, an OK photo, then sure. It's fine. But if, like - if it's - yeah, if it's an embarrassing photo, then I don't want it. And I want them to ask me to post something.

KELLY: They want to be asked. Anya, you followed up and talked to some of these kids' parents. What did they tell you?

KAMENETZ: Yeah, we talked to Jenna Mihms. She's one of the mothers. And she said the podcast really surprised her.


JENNA MIHMS: I thought it was interesting how sensitive the kids were of the thought of being embarrassed by things that parents post.

KAMENETZ: And, Mary Louise, Jenna Mihms had some really interesting insights into why parents post. She says, personally, she sometimes feels a social pressure from other parents to post online, even though, personally, she's inclined to be more private. And she asked her kids about this.


MIHMS: And I've actually asked them before if it makes them feel bad that I don't post about them because I know that's an opportunity for parents to sort of brag on their kids and highlight accomplishments.

KAMENETZ: And so when she goes online, she says...


MIHMS: I see all these great accomplishments and proud parent moments, that I didn't want my kids to feel that their parents didn't love them just as much as every other parent.

KELLY: And, Anya, I totally get that. You want to brag about your kids. I mean, let me push back on behalf of all the parents listening who might be thinking, I'm the adult here. I'm your parent. This is my social media account, and I should know what's best for you.

KAMENETZ: Right. I totally understand that. And one expert we talked to, Stacey Steinberg, kind of brought out what this conflict is. She's a professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. She's also a photographer herself and a mother of three, and so she started to wonder...


STACEY STEINBERG: How could we balance our kids' right to privacy with our interest in sharing our stories?

KAMENETZ: So notice that Steinberg says balance here, right? So parents, yes, we have legitimate interest in talking about our kids, sharing our struggles, getting support. But Stacey Steinberg also suggests that there are risks we should be aware of, as well as trade-offs.

KELLY: And what are the risks she's pointing to?

KAMENETZ: Well, one terrifying thing that she spelled out was that you should never post online any photos or videos that show your children in states of undress, even briefly. And the reason is that we've seen from recent reporting that the nature of the Internet and its recommendation algorithms is that those innocent pictures can essentially be served up to predators online.

KELLY: Yeah. I mean, this is where it gets not just tricky but really scary because I would certainly be aware of that with a teenager but less so with cute baby in the bubble bath.

KAMENETZ: Yeah, exactly. And this gets into a bigger point, Mary Louise. I mean, we've been talking about the personal, emotional, family dynamics of sharenting, but the bigger question, I think, is why is the Internet set up this way? You know, why is it so hard to keep our kids safe just when we're going about our daily lives and sharing with family and friends?

KELLY: And why is it so hard to keep our kids safe? Are there changes that could be made here?

KAMENETZ: So to get a little bit more of the policy perspective, I actually called up Sonia Livingstone. She's a leading expert in kids online at the London School of Economics. And Livingstone says that she'll be in the U.S., and she'll see parents snapping photos, even of other kids, not even just their own kids. And that seems very strange to her.

SONIA LIVINGSTONE: Can this be right that parents will take pictures of children at a public park or at a swimming pool? And it just really made me think, in Britain, we just don't do that anymore. We never take a picture of anyone else's child because we'll get - we know that they have - you know, that child has its own rights, as it were.

KAMENETZ: And so when Livingstone says that about children's rights, she actually means something very specific, Mary Louise. She pointed to something called the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. And this is a big document that was adopted back in 1990 by all countries, essentially, except the U.S. And it talks about what's good for the child, and that means access to resources to help them develop, the ability to express themselves, as well as protections from risk or harm, and that even includes participating in mass media and being able to access mass media but in a way that's safe. And so Livingstone says that in the U.K. and really all across Europe, this perspective of children's rights is starting to inform policy.

KELLY: Inform policy in what way? What's being changed?

KAMENETZ: Well, the U.K. government is currently developing what they call an age-appropriate design code. And this is the first of its kind in the world. And it's essentially like zoning laws for the Internet. It means any online service that's likely to be accessed by children will need to be very, very careful and very transparent on how they store and how they share data.

And so this really turns the notion of sharenting on its head a bit. You know, instead of us parents having to be so careful of how we guard our children's images and their stories, it puts a little bit more responsibility out on the platforms.

KELLY: And so that's what's happening in Europe. What about here in the U.S., Anya?

KAMENETZ: In the U.S., there are early stages of efforts to update the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. And that's kind of the biggest piece of legislation on this topic. But it's really kind of early days.

KELLY: Early days - OK. So while they wrangle that wherever it's going to go on Capitol Hill, what should we do? Give us some news we can use.

KAMENETZ: Well, one idea I'll share from Stacey Steinberg is this.


STEINBERG: We need to give kids veto power over what it is that we share about them online.

KAMENETZ: For example, after her 8-year-old's gymnastics meet, she puts a laptop up on the kitchen counter, and she lets him pick what photos to post and respond to the comments, like from his uncle. So this not only gives kids a way to stay in touch with friends and family, but it's also a great way of role modeling good judgment on social media, which I know, you know, your teenagers and my kids always show.

KELLY: Always.


KAMENETZ: And so like the kids from Missouri said, also, you know, they probably want you to do that. They want you to check in.

KELLY: NPR's Anya Kamenetz, thanks so much for coming on and talking about sharenting.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Anya hosts NPR's Life Kit parenting podcast. The Life Kit series has practical tips on all sorts of things, and you can find it on your smartphone or your laptop at npr.org/lifekit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.