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IEET > Security > Cyber > Rights > FreeThought > Privacy > Life > Access > Vision > Technoprogressivism > Contributors > R. J. Crayton

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What is Parents’ Responsibility to Protect Children’s Privacy Online?


R. J. Crayton
By R. J. Crayton
Ethical Technology

Posted: Nov 26, 2013

There’s a new “viral” video making the rounds. It’s a 15-minute pro gay-marriage film that interviews children about the concepts of prejudice, fairness and gay marriage. All the children in the video except one seem to think that basic principles of fairness should apply to men marrying men and women marrying women. However, throughout the video, one kid insists gay marriage “is just wrong.” When pressed for why this is so, the boy (who appears to be a five- or six-year-old) can provide no reason for his assertion.

After watching the video, my thought was, “Why would this boy’s parents do this to him?”

In twenty years, when that young man is looking for a job, and this video is still on the Internet, what will prospective employers think? What if he’s outgrown this view? Or even now, what will his schoolmates or his teacher think? How will this video impact this kid?

While my initial concern was for the boy who was the “odd man out” in the video, the concern could easily spread to others in the film — those who expressed favorable opinions toward the concept of allowing gay marriage.

This video raises the big question: in this age of viral Internet videos and web posts that stay around indefinitely, what ethical obligation do parents have to protect their children’s privacy online? Certainly, most parents seem opposed to their children having online accounts where they’re potentially exposed to axe-murdering or child-molesting strangers. Most parents also safeguard children’s information that could be used in financial fraud (like Social Security numbers, bank account numbers, etc.).

But, when it comes to images and stories, there are many parents who put it all out there. For example, the Huffington Post wrote about the site: www.reasonsmysoniscrying.com. I admit, it’s hilarious, especially this one (the boy cries because he asked his father to butter on rice and his father did). Mainly, it’s so funny because everyone who is a parent knows that kids cry for the most ridiculous reasons.

Looking at this site, though, I have to ask the question: Is this OK? Is it alright to have chronicled all this behavior and shown it to the world online? When this kid is ten or 12 or 18 or 20, how is he going to feel about having hundreds of thousands of people having laughed at his expense? (and people are laughing at him, not with him — because he’s crying, not laughing.) What about when potential employers Google him? Is this a plus or a minus? Will they care or won’t they? I don’t know the answer, but I don’t think it’s fair to put a child in this position.

Parents embarrassing kids is nothing new

Anyone who’s been a child knows that parents embarrass their offspring. There are those stories that the child cringes through each time it is repeated at a family gathering. When it’s a gathering of one- or two-dozen relatives, the child makes due and slaps his surname into the Vegas slogan (Whatever happens at the [your surname here] family Thanksgiving dinner at the [your surname here] family Thanksgiving dinner). However, people can’t do that with the Internet. It’s there, potentially forever.

My friend Natalie showed me the Reasons My Son is Crying site, and when I told her I found it unfair to the kid, her response was, “People post stuff about kids on Facebook and blogs all the time. This is no different.”

So, let’s talk social networking and blogs. When parents put stuff in these spots, is it alright? Well, the real issue is access. Who has access to the information and what control do parents have over that access?

Unfortunately, with social media, while there are often privacy settings, if the information is shared with other people (even just a few), those people have the ability to take a screenshot of it (for text) or download it (with photos) and share it with others. As a practical matter, screenshots of text are rarely circulated in a viral manner. So, parents can probably feel comfortable posting an anecdote about little Johnny on their Facebook or Google+ page, if they’ve enacted decent privacy settings.

However, if it’s a public blog, website or Twitter feed, parents should be mindful of the text they post. When it comes to photos, all bets are off. Photos are the things that tend to go viral. And even with decent privacy settings, most photos can be downloaded by anyone who has access, and then shared with others rather easily. Once photos go viral, they can’t go unviral (the genie is not going back in the bottle). John Mueller, who posted a Photoshopped pic of himself throwing his son into the air, found out the hard way that once it’s out there, you can’t get it back.

What Should Parents do?

So, what should a parent do — or not do — when it comes to posting online about their kids’ lives? The main thing is think.

When determining what to post, first parents should think about whether what they are posting can easily go viral? Can people simply send a link to this information, and the general public view it? If the answer is no, then post it (this would be information on some type of secure server that requires a password for people to view). If the answer is maybe or yes (social media postings), then it’s time to dig a little deeper, as Mama Odie would say (yeah, I loved Disney’s the Princess and the Frog).

If the intended post is a photo, website, Twitter feed or blog, the answer is almost always yes that it could go viral with a simple download or share. If it can go viral, parents should look at the content. Is it particularly objectionable or embarrassing? Now, this is pretty subjective, and different people will give different answers, but when answering the question, parents should give it an honest appraisal.

There’s this photo going around of a little girl whose spelling error suggest she lives in a whorehouse. Given how often it’s reposted, people must think it’s amusing. The girl’s parents must’ve thought so too (otherwise they wouldn’t have posted it somewhere to begin with). However, whether they like it or not, the photo has been seen by hundreds of thousands of people via Facebook and websites. I cringe whenever I see the photo, and I can’t imagine this young girl will enjoy seeing this when she’s 20.

If a parent finds the content embarrassing or objectionable, don’t post it. If the parent thinks it’s neither, then go for it. Parents are allowed to share tales with their friends. And online has become a way of doing so. I love telling the story of how my daughter one day looked at the container of 1 percent milk, then turned to me with an expression of utter horror and said, “Mom, it’s only 1 percent milk! What’s the rest of it?”

I found it cute that she realized drinks should generally be 100 percent (as opposed to 1 percent) of the advertised substance. But, who knows? Maybe others are horrified that my kid thinks I’m trying to give her 99 percent bat spit (or something else that is not milk). Either way, parents have to use their best judgment, and nobody is perfect. The key is to think about the issue. Try to evaluate the tone of the story or picture, and save those super embarrassing stories or photos for in person, over the phone, or even an email to one or two individuals in your family.

​Also, I would say age matters. While it’s these small child photos that people find most adorable (and probably the most harmless), I would contend these are the ones parents need to be most careful with. The older a child gets, the more say he or she is going to want in their online presence. An ten year old who is active in drama may want to be interviewed on the news about the local acting program or even blog about the theatre production he performs in. That may be a great thing that the parent wants to let happen. Nothing ill would probably come of it. Not to mention, one of the most crucial jobs parents do is teach their children how to evaluate situations so they can make appropriate choices in the future. Having discussions with a child about the pros and cons of posting certain photos or statements online is a good thing to do with older children.

Will kids want to retract the past?

While parents control what happens with their kids’ online presence for the moment, I wonder what the future will look like. Fifteen or 20 years from now, will kids be able to search for childhood images of them online and demand site owners take those images down, now that they are adults?

It’s an interesting conundrum. At present, we tell teens and college students to watch what they post online, because employers, and even potential mates, Google them. What if the worst things posted about them online come from Mom and Dad?


R.J. Crayton is a novelist living in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area. More information is available on her website.
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