Should I share this? Presenting children on their parents’ social media

  • December 04, 2018
  • Jesse Blackman

Our social media footprint is often a highly curated collection of information, ideas, and images that we hold close to our identity. Whether we’re attending an event on Facebook, Instagramming a workout routine, taking a Snap at a family gathering, or making a professional post on LinkdIn, our posts reflect something akin to the best version of ourselves. So what does it mean when being a parent is central identifying feature of someone’s life?

Baby pictures capture precious moments, and can show important landmarks in a child’s development. Childhood photos used to be the domain of photo albums which might be paraded out on a birthday or other family occasion, often to the chagrin teenagers present. Now, on a parent’s social media, an ultrasound picture may be just the beginning of a child’s documented entry into the world and subsequent growth. However, potential harm goes far beyond a child inheriting an online presence heavily crafted by their parents.

A recent report by the United Kingdom’s Children’s Commissioner raises concerns about the impact of collection and sharing of children’s data on a child’s future. From the more immediate harm of photo’s revealing the location of a child to strangers, to their ability to access insurance or employment, the implications of parents’ social media posts are vast, unknown, and unpredictable.

In 2015, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada adopted reputation and privacy as strategic priorities, committing to “help create an online environment where individuals may use the internet to explore their interests and develop as persons without fear that their digital trace will lead to unfair treatment.” The OPC acknowledges the complexity of online reputations, and Canadians’ concern that “judgments are generally formed on information people read about others, or images they see, often without the benefit of personal contact and not necessarily in the same context in which it was intended.” Solutions include strengthening private sector protections and empowering Canadians to ask search engineers to de-index certain information for websites.

The OPC’s discussion paper briefly mentions parents uploading children’s “photos and amusing anecdotes from their earliest days,” but the matter of children’s privacy immediately moves on to children’s own user-created content.

There is also a question of cyber-justice, as technology, and algorithms, inherit the biases of their creators. While data-based decisions may be prima facie objective, a deeper look at assumptions underlying data collection and processing is necessary for it to avoid reproducing social inequality.

For children, there are two main categories of concern. The first is the personal and social implications of parents’ over-sharing. Issues here take the form of a child’s psychological and emotional development as it is affected both by domestic issues like neglect or abuse, and social issues like bullying or cyberbullying. The second is the child’s identity. Increased social media presence is likely to publicize information that can be used for identity theft. Data collected from parents’ electronic devices, as well as from smart home devices such as Next or Amazon’s Alexa, is ripe for abuse from companies, politicians and scam artists alike. Predictive data and biometrics may create unforeseen constraints on children’s futures as well.

The Ontario Law Reform Commission’s Report Defamation Law in the Age of Internet considered children’s and youths’ ability for self-expression, autonomy, and control. Bailey and Steeves’ research found that adolescents demonstrate a highly sensitive understanding of how to craft and protect their reputations in a context where the distinction between online and offline is increasingly meaningless. The report emphasized the harm that can be caused when an image or personal information is shared without consent.

Parents should be sensitive to how they portray their children online, the audiences to whom they are exposing their children, and how a post might look to their child as an adolescent, youth, and adult. The biggest factor to consider is the child’s ability to review and approve the image. Giving a child the ability to provide informed consent over their own representation is one step to take. Asking permission of a child encourages them to develop their ability to express themselves while teaching them how to consider their personal needs and desires, and set and communicate boundaries.

A cute video of a child doing something embarrassing, for example, might be great in an email to the grandparents, or get a laugh around the dinner table with friends, but might be best left off social media. A school graduation picture is an easy example of where simply asking permission before posting shows respect for a child’s wishes while allowing parents to be proud of their child’s development, regardless of if that image ends up on social media.

Facebook, once restricted to university students, opened its membership to anyone in 2006, the same year that Twitter launched. The first photo was posted to Instagram in 2010. Snapchat launched in 2010. The first generation of children to grow up in the age of social media are still adolescents, so the consequence of all this sharing is yet unknown.

Governments and policy makers have a responsibility to oversee transparent and responsible use of children’s data, both by public and private sector data collectors. Parents should consider the long-term impacts that posts may have on their children, act in their child’s best interests, and whenever possible involve their child in deciding what they post online.

Jesse Blackman is J.D. candidate in the Robson Hall Faculty of Law, Class of 2020


Who knows what about me? A Children’s Commissioner report into the collection and sharing of children’s data. November 2018.

Jane Bailey and Valerie Steeves. Defamation Law in the Age of the Internet: Young People’s Perspectives. Law Commission of Ontario. June 2017.

OPC: Strategic plan

OPC report: Consultation on online reputation