There was a time when children’s lives were recorded solely in the family photo album or on home movies, where the worst that could happen was that a photo you’d rather keep under wraps got passed around to the great amusement of your mates.
But with the advent of the internet, today’s children have an existence online before they have even left the cradle. From Facebook to Flickr babies and young children are on public display, leaving them with a digital shadow as their parents document every detail of their lives online.
By the time they reach adulthood young people will already have amassed a huge archive of material about their personal life, often accessible by anyone. And in those early years they have no control over what is being shared.
But will young people always be happy about what their parents have documented on the internet? And if not, does this mean that the privacy battles of the future will be fought between children and their oversharing parents?
Parents are able to post very revealing details about their children’s lives and they get to set the privacy settings as to how private that is. Effectively, parents can reveal a great deal about their children without the child having any capacity to do anything about it.
The criminal law can be used to prosecute those who post abusive images of children, but where children’s privacy is concerned, it is not clear what they can do to protect themselves from their own family.
Media law expert David Banks, who gives legal guidance to Contributoria, explains: “Both the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights protect our right to privacy and family life.
“Privacy law can give some protection to children for material that is posted about them by people or organisations not connected to them, the media for example. However, that protection does not necessarily extend to material that is posted about them by their own family.”
The presumption is that parents always do what is best for their child, but in this oversharing generation this is not always true and parents may post things without really thinking about the long-term effect it may have on the child.
Increasingly, we are all using the internet as an extended support network, a platform to share concerns in a very public way. Parents’ comments and concerns may cover anything from failed exams, temper tantrums and behavioural issues to health issues such as anorexia or psychological problems. Every time parents post a photograph of or tag their child on sites like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, they are helping to create an online profile that that child may not want in future years.
Parents post things without really thinking about the long-term effect it may have on the child.
When adults post online they tick a box agreeing to that site using their online data, but what about the site using their children’s data? It may seem innocent enough at the time, but is it right that a parent should post images of another person, albeit their child, when they are not able to give their consent?
Tom Walker, community manager at Tempero Social Media Management, believes it is a question for individual parents to consider. “Rather than ‘right or wrong’ it might be better to think of it in terms of ‘risk versus reward’. There are many implications for any information we choose to share online, especially when sharing images of children.
“Parents have so much to consider in this area. Will what looks cute for your relatives now, look embarrassing to your daughter’s friends when she’s 14? How easy is it for someone with basic research skills to link your son’s photo with a location, date of birth or school? Would I be comfortable if the image of my child that I find so funny became a meme that was endlessly duplicated across the web?”
Digital technology is progressing at such a pace that we can envisage a future where this amassed data is collated to form a highly detailed profile of the individual. At its most positive this data will be used by companies and marketing agencies, but who is to say it won’t lead to anything more sinister?
Walker reminds us that it is worth thinking about those photos your own parents insisted they show your partner when you brought them home for the first time. “Would you be comfortable with them being found by HR departments as part of an employment check, by admissions tutors at universities, by the kids that bullied at your school?
“Parents can help to mitigate the risk by paying careful attention to privacy settings on the social media they use, but ultimately we don’t know how social media will change and develop over the next few years, or how they will use the data contributed to their database. If you wouldn’t share the picture with a stranger, you may consider the risk of sharing on a social networking site too high.”
One question to ponder is whether young people are more savvy in their own use of social media, preferring sites like Snapchat and Periscope where images last a limited time - from a few seconds to 24 hours - before disappearing. Are the generation who have been born into the digital world more wary of the permanence of images posted on the social media platforms favoured by their parents, such as Facebook and Twitter?
“I think that young people are more technically familiar with social media than our generation,” Walker says. “But I don’t believe that necessarily translates into more savvy in the sense of being more safe in their use of it. We hear plenty of stories from CEOP, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, and ChildLine, which demonstrate that, like any demographic, young people are spread across the whole spectrum. Some young people are naïve and assume anything built by adults would protect their privacy as a matter of course. Some young people are extremely careful because they are naturally more cautious, or have been forewarned by education or the experience of their peers.”
On the issue of privacy, the EU and the European Court of Human Rights, it would seem, are involved in a growing battle with those who advocate complete freedom of information. The “right to be forgotten” court case in Europe means people in Europe are allowed to have search engine results concerning them deleted in some circumstances. This has set up a conflict between principles of privacy and those of the open sharing of information as advocated by search giants like Google.
Young people are constantly instructed to take care what they post online and parents or guardians are responsible for their children’s online privacy up until the age of 18. Several bodies do exist to protect children and young people when using the internet, laying out rules for companies that run websites accessed by children.
COPPA, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act 1998/2000, is legislation passed by US Congress and sets out a legal requirement for companies when dealing with children under 13.
Other organisations offer online crime protection. CEOP, for example, aims to protect children from harm online and offline by liaising with online and technological industries to fine tune guidelines to minimise the possibility of current and future technology increasing the risk of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse.
However when it comes to guidelines for parents on how to use every day social media platforms safely, advice is sparse.
Why don’t we exercise the same duty of care to young people in the digital world as we do in the physical world?
In order to address such issues, the campaign group irights has drawn up a set of principles with the aim of providing a framework for how we should engage with children and young people in the digital world. It started out with a simple question: why don’t we exercise the same duty of care to young people in the digital world as we do in the physical world?
irights director Glenn Manoff believes the amount of data that is available online about young people could affect them for decades to come. “The collection of large amounts of personal data shared by or about children, including by their own parents, can have long-term implications. The internet never forgets and never corrects. It can possess an infinite memory of each individual and all of their online actions. Information is collated and presented typically without context, regardless of age, time passed or circumstance. This is true whether it’s a picture or information a child has personally shared or something shared by their parent but about them.”
Manoff acknowledges that, more than any other technology, the internet has created huge opportunities for children and young people to learn and communicate. But along with the numerous benefits come new challenges and risks.
iRights’ five principles are a sort of digital bill of rights for young people, championed by a huge coalition of civil society and business organisations and leaders.
“These iRights reflect the rights already embodied in international and national law and cultures,” explains Manoff. “We’ve simply brought them together and presented them in a digital world context and in language that everyone, including children and teens, can understand.”
The five rights include the “right to remove”, meaning every young person should have the right to easily delete any content they themselves have created with a clearly signposted ways to retract, correct and dispute online data that refers to them.
The second right is the “right to know”. Children and young people have the right to know who is holding or profiting from their information, what their information is being used for and whether it is being copied, sold or traded. This applies equally to parents, who have a right to know what is happening to pictures or other data about their children.
The further three rights include the right to safety and support, the right to make informed and conscious choices and the right to digital literacy.
Young people should have the unqualified right, on every internet platform or service, to fully remove data and content they have created.
“When a parent posts or tags pictures of their own children, their intent is undoubtedly good and pure,” Manoff explains. “The future implications of doing so are often not considered, let alone understood. A knowledge of the five iRights will help parents make more informed and conscious choices about what they share about their kids.”
So can the irights campaign help young people protect themselves against what others are posting about them?
“Yes,” says Manoff. “A core principle of the iRights framework is children and young people should have the unqualified right, on every internet platform or service, to fully remove data and content they have created. This must be easy and straightforward to do.
“This does not mean young people would have an automatic right to delete reproduced data or content written or produced by others. Where data or content referring to a child or young person has been created or published by others, the rights of under-18s must be balanced against the right of freedom of speech.
“It is, however, essential that there is an easily accessible route for children and young people to resolve disputes or correct misinformation – a route that does not require recourse to the courts.”
Manoff concludes: “It must be right for under-18s to own content they have created and to have an easy and clearly signposted way to retract, correct and dispute online data that refers to them.”
So what is the solution? Rather than terrifying parents and children into never sharing anything online, irights believes we should help young people and their parents to develop a better understanding of how digital technology works so they can use the internet in a positive way.
Walker agrees that parents should be aware of the implications of what they share online. “I think it’s always wise to take responsibility for what you post online. There are lots of parents who are already extremely careful about what they share, but I think it’s important that information on the risks and the potential solutions is available to help parents.”
He recommends parents make use of resources available at ThinkUKnow, CEOP’s education programme, and ChildNet’s Safer Internet Centre to help inform their sharing choices.
“It’s also important for parents to check the privacy settings of the social networks they are using. Privacy settings can change and you don’t want to find that what you thought was private is no longer so.”
So next time you look at your privacy settings you might be happy with what you have set for yourself but a question to ask is, in years to come, will your children be happy with the level of privacy you have given them - as well as with the legacy you have left them?