06/27/2022

Permission By Proxy: Internet And Children’s Privacy

The internet today is a highly essential part of our lives and its importance cannot be underestimated. Where it has shrunk spaces and connected people like never before, it has also opened up a range of opportunities that have empowered individuals and communities globally.

But when it comes to social media, children and teenagers are not uncommon online despite leading social networking platforms, including Facebook and Instagram, requiring users to be at least 13 years of age. This restriction is in place to prevent minors from being exposed to inappropriate content or protect them from manipulation and blackmail. But these age restriction policies and social media companies’ claims of deleting accounts belonging to underage users do not appear to be effective enough.

Meta-owned Facebook and Instagram require a user to add their date of birth while signing up on the platforms, but that requirement can easily be bypassed by providing a false date. Figures from almost a decade ago showed that over 7.5 million users on Facebook were under the age of 13 years. If anything, this number would only have increased in recent years given Facebook and Instagram’s popularity among young people and the number of users now running in billions globally. How hard is it to add a couple of years to your age to register on Facebook or Instagram? The platforms have their work cut out by declaring an age restriction that barely appears to serve its purpose.

But children’s presence on the internet also has another dimension. It is not always children running their accounts or posting their media online; sometimes, it is their parents. 

Parental consent on behalf of a child means that the parent can post any amount of media they want of their child on the internet. Considering younger generations with an increased access to the internet, it will be both interesting and insightful to examine the impact of children’s media being posted online by their parents. 

From parents posting images on their private social media pages for their friends and family to those who share “family content” publicly, children born in the past decade are likely to have their lives well documented online. 

Family or parent influencers are quite popular these days and have found a niche in the online market. There are several YouTubers, including young mothers and even entire families, producing content centred around their children for Instagram and TikTok as well. 

But with more kids-centric content getting popular among online audiences, is it okay to post it without, let’s say, children’s consent? There is a lot of debate when it comes to this question. 

Areen Shahid, a 26-year-old blogger from Lahore who is currently pursuing a master’s degree, has some thoughts to share. Areen runs a parenting blog primarily featuring her toddler. While she has no issues posting the media of her daughter on social media, Areen says that she does get upset when someone posts her daughter’s photos or videos without seeking Areen’s consent.

“I understand not everyone wants to post pictures of their children online,” says Areen. Posting content centred on her daughter initially started out as a way to keep her extended family up to date but turned into something much more “meaningful” for Areen later on. “I have never found any negativity towards the child, but sometimes people kind of take ownership of your child which, at times, I am not okay with.” She mentions that most criticism on her blog is directed towards her and her parenting style rather than her child. 

When it comes to the possible adverse effects on her daughter of the criticism she receives, Areen says she does have a worry. She has noticed that people may now recognise her daughter in public which she and her husband think could lead to their child developing unrealistic expectations in the future. Her daughter may grow to expect a certain level of attention that is not guaranteed for the family’s, if any, future prospects online. But considering that Areen’s blog focuses on “conscious” parenting and gender-neutral parenting roles, she considers the results to be a net positive at the end of the day. 

In contrast to Areen’s take on the matter, Fauzia Zafar, an Instagram influencer with a dedicated following, adopted a more private approach as her content evolved with time. Fauzia started out as a blogger profiling her journey as a bride but now she has been married for seven years and is mother to a two-year-old daughter. 

While Fauzia posts pictures and videos of her daughter, she ensures her face is not visible in them. Be it with strategic angles or use of emojis, she prioritises maintaining her daughter’s privacy at all times. 

Fauzia ensures her little one’s privacy for a number of reasons. She wants her daughter to one day have the choice of deciding whether she wants to post her photos or videos on social media. She also values her daughter’s privacy. 

But what influenced Fauzia was an article she came across while reading up on parenting during her pregnancy online. She read that some bad actors on the “dark web” could take images of children and use them for malicious purposes, including by doctoring them for videos depicting child sexual abuse. 

The idea that this could even be possible made her determined to ensure her child would never fall prey to such alarming activities in the cybersphere. If she did not post pictures of her daughter, she would not have to worry about these consequences. 

Stacey Steinberg, a juvenile law expert and author, notes that posting your children online could indeed open them up to the risk of grooming and put them in the line of some predators’ vision. She also notes it can also put them at risk of identity theft, among other threats. 

But of course, while there is a risk of something of this sort happening, it is not always the case. Parents might reason that the chances of such experiences could be minimal, especially if parents are the ones posting their child’s media and keeping watch on the account. 

But here a child’s physical safety is not the only thing at risk. 

Too much of anything, as the saying goes, is not good for a person. Studies have shown the more amount of time people spend on social media, the worse some of them are likely to feel. Use of platforms like Facebook and Instagram can have an adverse impact on some people’s self-confidence and self-image. The damaging effects “beauty filters” have on young users have time and again raised concerns over responsibility on social media corporations when it comes to their user’s well-being. In the UK, a ruling by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) restrained influencers from using “misleading” filters in paid posts to safeguard the self-image of their followers and viewers. 

Tooba Nadeem Akhtar, a doctoral student of developmental psychology, says, “I can only share lived or observed experiences on this. I think doctored images, specifically where societal beauty standards are enhanced, have the potential to implant complexes, and make young users feel like what they have or who they are is inadequate and not good enough since it is incongruent with the society’s accepted and desired beauty standards.” 

Tooba says that even experts are undecided on what is the correct protocol for sharing media of children on the internet. “This is an important area of ethics or even parenting that has yet to be addressed by professionals or specialists, so until then, parents will likely use their own judgements.” 

Tooba adds she has heard of instances where children’s images have been manipulated with sexual undertones, especially in regions where enforcement of intellectual property law is weaker. Sharing her personal opinion on posting children’s media on the internet, she says, “In this era of visibility parents should be mindful that their decisions affect both themselves as well as their children, and so it would be best to come to an informed decision, and respect their child’s privacy and autonomy for as long as they can.”

When a parent makes a decision for their child, they usually want to make one which is in their child’s best interest. No responsible parent would publicly put their child’s images and information on the internet knowing that it might put their child at risk from predators who could sexualise their media online or steal the child’s identity.

But as already discussed, a child’s physical safety being compromised by strangers is not the only thing that is a cause for concern. The question surrounding consent and autonomy is equally important. 

While a child may be too young to understand the complexities of consenting to having their images or videos published on the internet for the world to see, perhaps taking away their choice altogether may influence their actions in the future.

Fauzia says she does not want to post pictures of her daughter on the internet because she does not want her child to grow up feeling that she “needs” to post images of herself online as well. “I very strongly believe in people getting the choice to put themselves out there, it should be their call,” Fauzia says. “If I start putting up my daughter’s pictures on social media, she may grow up believing that this is something she should do or needs to do while she doesn’t.”

Fauzia mentions that while she does not post pictures of her child with her face visible, she has thousands of them on her phone. But Fauzia will respect her daughter’s consent and opinion if ever she expresses disapproval towards her photos being posted online, Fauzia adds.

A child’s sense of self is strongly linked to them being able to do things and make decisions for themselves. While in some cases they may not always make the best decisions for themselves, in terms of online activities, taking their pictures despite visible reluctance might be doing more harm than good. 

A study on children aged between 10 and 12 years showed that more than one in four children felt “anxious, embarrassed, or worried” about their parents posting their pictures on social media. While older children are able to better understand social media and what posting a picture on it could mean, those who are younger might one day also feel uncomfortable with the idea of having their images, videos, or information posted in the past. 

Tooba has a similar take on this matter. She says, “Autonomy and decision making are key developments [in an individual’s life]. And so, if a child is forcefully asked to do something they do not want to, it will likely undermine their ability to make decisions or do so independently, and it overrules their capacity to reason and decide.” 

She adds that this might also make the child question themselves. “A child may even feel like they lack the intelligence to make a decision, and hence, it may make them question and/or doubt their own agency and autonomy.” 

But of course, concrete evidence is hard to come by on the long-term effects of sharing images and videos of children online. A case which posed questions similar to these was when American artist Spencer Elden filed a lawsuit against Nirvana for using his image for the cover of their album. Elden was four months old when his picture was taken. The image shows him swimming without any clothing and reaching out for a dollar note. 

Now 31 years old, Elden has filed a lawsuit against Nirvana for what he says has caused him “permanent emotional distress” as he considers that image of him to be “child pornography”. When Elden was photographed as a baby, his parents consented to it and signed away the rights for the image of their four-month-old son. Years later, their son was not happy with the image and was distressed by its existence and the fact that it had been seen by millions of people. 

It is safe to assume that children having their images and videos posted publicly on the internet by their parents or other family members may have an issue with them later on. Fauzia has the same concern when it comes to her daughter. “What if I post a picture that she one day sees and asks me why I put it up. I never want her to question me on that. I don’t want to make that choice because I don’t know what she would or would not be comfortable with [after] growing up.” 

Zohat Parvez, a mental health expert from Columbia University, thinks that a sense of mistrust can develop in a relationship between a child and their parents when violation of consent comes into the scene. She says, “If parents post their children without their consent or post [their] private or unflattering moments, their child could end up feeling as if they can’t trust their parents or that their parents think [getting] clout supersedes their child’s well-being.” 

Zohat says it is not possible for a small child to give informed consent so the best practice might just be to avoid posting pictures or videos of children on the internet all together till they are at an age where they can understand the complexity of what parents are explaining to them and give an informed opinion on what they would be comfortable with. 

Exercising self-restraint might not work for everyone, especially when social media is such an integral part of sharing our lives with friends, family, and in the case of influencers, followers. But the question about how important it is to post something may go a long way. Zohat’s advice is to ask yourself a few simple questions and think about the content you are posting. “Who am I posting this for? Is it important that everyone who follows me should see this? What are the possible reactions my child could have, either now or in the future, if I post this?” 

If we take time out to think and ponder these questions, we could come to conclusions as to whether posting a TikTok video of your child’s birth or an Instagram picture of them in the middle of a tantrum is appropriate. Posting images and videos of children for strangers on the internet may not always be a healthy idea given the exposure it brings.

But in a country like Pakistan where the internet, especially social media, is a relatively new phenomenon, a lot needs to be done to normalise discussions on a child’s consent to their media being posted online in relation to its possible impact on their emotional well-being. 

 

Rameeza Ahmad is a psychology researcher and a freelance journalist hailing from Lahore, Pakistan. She enjoys spending time with cats, drinking chai and waxing lyrical about OT7 on her secret stan account. Her main accounts can be found on Twitter and Instagram on @rameezay.

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