That Cute Baby Photo Posted On Instagram Has Consequences You Should Know About

That Cute Baby Photo Posted On Instagram Has Consequences You Should Know About

I got my first iPhone in 2009, just a few months after the birth of my first child. Immediately, I created a Facebook account and started sharing photos of my adorable baby. I had (wisely) stayed away from Facebook while undergoing fertility procedures, but once my son arrived, I couldn’t resist posting plenty of pics.

Caring for a baby can make for long, tedious days, and social media provided me with a welcome break from the monotony of feeding and diaper changing. It also gave me an opportunity to connect with other adults at a time when I often went many hours without talking to anyone who was capable of articulating a response.

As my son grew, becoming more of an autonomous person and less an extension of me, I gradually started posting fewer pictures of him. Around age 7 or 8, he told me that he wished I hadn’t uploaded a photo with his face in it, and I began asking for his permission before putting any images of him online. His presence on my Facebook page quickly diminished.

It took me a while to understand that those first baby photos I had posted so enthusiastically could have value to anyone beyond the friends and relatives I had intentionally shared them with.

In effect, I was leaving a digital trail of crumbs for data brokers who could collect information such as my son’s name and birthday from my posts. With facial recognition technology, they are able to remember his features, and with location tracking, they can figure out where he lived.

All of this information is sometimes referred to as “a digital footprint — a kind of electronic paper trail — that forms [kids’] identities in a world they haven’t chosen to enter,” Girard Kelly, head of privacy at Common Sense Media, told HuffPost.

Valeska Berg, a researcher at Australia’s Edith Cowan University who studies the digital identities of children, told HuffPost, “We found that children’s digital identities on social networking sites were predominantly created by their parents, especially by their mothers, often with little input from the child.”

Who collects this information, and how do they use it?

It never occurred to me that anyone I didn’t know in real life would have any interest in my photos, but companies collect this data and sell it. Advertisers are eager to know as much about your family as they can get their hands on in order to target the messages they send you every time you pick up your phone and start to scroll.

“Everything you post has information that is valuable to advertisers and data
collectors; posting a photo of a kid identifies you as someone who might be
interested in baby products, for example,” Kelly explained.

“Data collection starts the moment you click to open an application,” he said. For example, your location is often being tracked even before you log in to an account. And the data never disappears — it just continues to accumulate.

“Not only do they collect what you click on but also your behavior over time. Your scrolling, your friends, your preferences, your interests, your characteristics — that is what advertisers use to understand what you’re susceptible to engage with,” Kelly said.

In a recent New Yorker essay, writer Jia Tolentino documents the “experiment” she conducted by trying to hide her pregnancy from online data brokers. The process involved deleting her apps; turning off her location tracking, camera and microphone; and not Googling or purchasing anything pregnancy-related. Since their data is linked, her partner had to abide by this last rule as well. (The “experiment” was facilitated by the fact that this was their second child, so fewer purchases and searches were necessary.)

Tolentino managed to keep up the ruse for five months. When she decided to give up the jig and bought a pair of maternity pants online, she said, ads for baby carriers started appearing on her Instagram account within a matter of minutes.

What are the risks of others having this information about my child?

Though the idea of data brokers tracking your child’s location every time they open the YouTube app to watch Bluey videos sounds alarming, and like a potential threat to their safety, the reality is that child kidnappings are exceedingly rare, and when they do occur, they usually involve a custody conflict between parents.

The entities collecting your child’s data don’t want to take your kid away from you — but they do want to get into your child’s mind and influence their preferences.

The data broker system “is a multibillion-dollar industry that profits from collecting the behaviors and preferences and actions of users. When you know how users tick, you are able to change behavior and persuade them toward purchase decisions or brand loyalty,” Kelly said.

Other risks of providing access to all this data include identity theft and digital kidnapping, which is when people “steal a child’s identity and photo on social media and pass the child off as their own,” Berg explained.

“There are different types of privacy risks that have unintended consequences on kids,” Kelly said. In addition to the mental health risks of spending time online and the financial risks of being swayed to make purchases, there are what Kelly refers to as “dark patterns”: promoting addictive behaviors on gaming and social media sites.

“Apps are designed to keep kids engaged so that they keep coming back,” Kelly explained.

How can I protect my child’s privacy?

All of this can leave parents feeling scared and powerless, wondering if there’s any way to prevent their children from being groomed into docile digital consumers.

If you have a teen with a cellphone and social media accounts, it may feel like the train has already left the station. But most teens resent being manipulated by any kind of advertising, so it’s worth discussing with them the way that their data is tracked and sold and how it results in the targeted ads they see every day.

These days, “parents are generally aware that there is some risk of posting information about their children online,” Berg said.

They’re certainly more informed than I was when my son was an infant. You may have noticed that some parents have taken to protecting their child’s image by only posting photos where their face isn’t visible, blurring their features or covering them with emoji icons.

Interestingly, Berg has found that the way parents act on this fear varies among cultures. Through her research, she has learned that German and Austrian parents tend not to share photos of their children on social media, and Malaysian parents are attentive to turning off location tagging and not sharing their children’s names or birthdates.

All of these are good ways to keep data brokers from tracking your children. To stay on top of them, you have to think about your posts like they do, asking, “What identifying information does this reveal about my child?” Sharing a birthdate, for example, is as simple as saying “Happy 5th birthday, Jayden!” on the day. Kelly added that school entrances or uniforms can also give away which school your child attends and where it’s located.

In addition, Berg suggested that parents “review the profile’s privacy settings and set the profile on ‘private’ rather than ‘public.’” You might assume that private is the default setting, but this may not be the case.

Group chats, WhatsApp groups and other private spaces offer alternative ways to share photos of your child and keep friends and family updated on their activities.

There are a number of organizations working to protect children’s identities online. In Australia, Berg mentioned The Digital Child. In the U.S., Common Sense Media and Fairplay are advocates for policies and legislation to protect children online.

In the U.S., the COPPA Act protects kids younger than 13 from sharing information online without parental approval, although Kelly noted that “most of the time this isn’t enough because privacy policies are too obtuse and difficult to understand.” In California, a couple of pieces of legislation protect users from having their data sold without their knowledge, although a 2023 Common Sense Media report “analyzed the privacy practices of over 200 apps and platforms and found that nearly three-quarters (73%) are still monetizing kids’ and families’ personal information,” Kelly said.

In addition to further protective legislation, enacted one country at a time, Berg imagines technological solutions that could bring a quicker and more widespread fix.

“One such feature could be an intelligent tool capable of detecting when a user is about to upload a photo or information related to a child. Upon detection, the system could trigger a pop-up notification to alert the parents. This notification would serve as a reminder to the parents that they are about to share sensitive information about their children. It would prompt them to confirm their intent, thereby ensuring they are fully aware and comfortable with the implications of their actions.”

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