Of babies’ (then older kids’) privacy rights

By Anne Collier

This is a perennial question, but it’s good that it keeps coming up. In Disney’s Babble.com, parenting blogger Katie (last name wisely not provided for her son’s privacy), again asks when a child’s right to privacy kicks in and whether parents are violating that right by sharing photos in social media.

“I believe that yes, my son has a right to privacy,” she writes, “but I also believe that [with her baby] at 14 months, it is my job as his mother to decide what is an appropriate amount of sharing/privacy and that it is possible to share pictures and stories without violating that right.” She discusses how there’s no single right answer, that each family has to find the right place for its kids on a kid-privacy spectrum from no online photo-sharing at all to sharing privately to sharing a whole lot publicly. She shares only occasionally (admirably trying not to post anything that would be embarrassing if mother-son roles were reversed) and doing a cost-benefit analysis, the benefit being the support system that comes with sharing our lives.

Four years ago Lisa Belkin put a similar question to readers of the New York Times’s “Motherlode” column, but instead of asking when a child’s right to privacy starts, she asked “at what point do parents lose their right to their children’s tales?” Then she elaborated in a way that really pulls you up short: “When do things stop being something that happened to ‘me’ and start being something that happened to ‘them,’ and therefore not ‘mine’ to tell?”

That’s the exact question another parent, Amber Teamann – mother of two (one very young, one almost a teen) and assistant principal in an elementary school – seems to have asked herself four years later. She writes in her blog that she is “very cautious” about sharing information about her older daughter because “I don’t want her to be attached to the social stream of who I have defined her to be. I want her to be her own person, with her own likes, dislikes, pins, etc.”

Clearly all of these parents are mindful that this is a pretty permanent, searchable, global archive in which they’re displaying their children’s photos and milestones, and Belkin even touches on the criticism and trollish behaviors that can emerge online, well after a story about a child has been posted. It would be nice if there were a simple answer to these child privacy questions for all parents, but at least we’re getting better informed about the implications of sharing so we can better draw our own lines in the child-privacy sand. So let’s keep asking this: Do parents have the “online rights” to their children’s life story, and – if so – up to what point in their children’s lives?

Related links

  • Later in her post, Amber writes that she has chosen to restrict her preteen daughter from “diving into the social media stream,” unlike other parents of kids in her child’s peer group, apparently. That’s a decision a lot of engaged parents are making, probably, but there’s nothing reflexive about this parent’s approach. How can I tell? She writes that “it is a constant discussion in our household in what I think she should have an account with or have zero access too.” This is the thoughtful, iterative (rather than once-and-for-all) approach to parenting that these digitalized times seem to call for. As I wrote here, if we can keep the conversation going and ask the kinds of questions that encourage critical thinking, we’re helping them develop the social- and media-literacy skills that will keep them much safer over the long term than reinforcing their dependence on us will. By the way she writes, this parent seems to give at least as much weight to critical thinking as control.
  • “Our children’s digital dossiers” (2010)
  • A video illustration of how our digital dossiers develop from pre-birth, produced in 2008 by students participating in the Digital Natives project at Harvard University’s Berkman Center
  • “Online privacy: Photos out of control” (2009)