Traditionally, people may have told funny or icky anecdotes about their children to their nearest and dearest when they saw them, or wheeled out embarrassing photos of their naked children at 21st birthday parties.
But social media sites provide the opportunity to share this information far more widely. Parents can place information permanently online where it may come back to haunt them, or their children.
Many parents post photos and videos online of their young children during their most cute, funny, or embarrassing moments. Daily chronicles of the most personal kind are appearing on social media sites around the world. These posts include the most intimate anecdotes about anything from poo and vomit to funny or misguided comments children have made.
This can begin from the child’s earliest moments – from ultrasound images to photos of newborn babies still naked and covered in blood. One parent even posted an image of a toddler on the toilet with his pants around his ankles, peering down with trepidation.
While it’s natural for people to want to share information about their children’s funniest moments, it raises important issues about children’s privacy. A discussion of these issues has been strangely absent and as the trend intensifies, it is a discussion we need to have.
The issue is particularly salient in the context of younger children who are not old enough to speak for themselves. They cannot consent to the information being shared, or understand the possible implications.
Are children not owed some privacy as they learn to navigate the world? Can they not expect their most intimate moments, when they are at their most vulnerable or raw, to be shared only amongst those closest to them?
Should they not have the choice, when they are old enough to exercise it, about which of the moments catalogued by their loved ones are made more public?
In addition to expecting their privacy as children to be protected, there’s also the issue of their privacy as future adults. What about when the child grows up? If the information is available on social media when the child reaches adolescence and adulthood, there’s a reserve of fodder for potential bullies at school, for potential employers, and for the media if they become prominent.
If a child whose every intimate moment has been photographed, described and posted online develops a public profile, or enters political office, her parents will have created the ultimate “dirt file”.
Research with children consistently shows that being listened to, having their views taken seriously, being given choices about decisions that affect them, and being treated respectfully are essential to their well-being. This is vital for their sense of self and their relationships with the adults around them.
Some progress has been made in responding to children’s wishes. In Australia,growing recognition of children’s rights has meant they are increasingly treated as autonomous agents possessing rights.
In 2013, Australia’s first National Children’s Commissioner was appointed at the Australian Human Rights Commission to ensure that children’s voices are heard when “decisions are made about the issues that affect their lives”. Today, the commission launches its Children’s Rights Report, the first of its kind in Australia.
Policy and research concerning children now aim to be more participatory andinclusive of children’s views. Children are increasingly treated as though their “expertise” in their own well-being is a resource that can be tapped when developing policies and services to meet their needs.
The trend towards posting intimate images, videos and information about children online on a large scale is antithetical to all of this progress.
As social media becomes a more pervasive part of our life, we need to start talking about the implications of this trend, and what our children might think about it now and in the future.
Dr Myra Hamilton is a Research Fellow in the Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW.
This opinion piece was first published in The Conversation.