Growing Up Online: Becoming Mindful about Photos

Social media has become the new back fence, a place where parents can tell stories, swap tips and even brag a bit. A recent survey from the Pew Research Center found that moms, in particular, give and get lots of encouragement as well as useful parenting information from networks like Facebook (FB), Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram. Almost all of these efforts involve photos, which would be great if those photos would ‘stay put.’ Unfortunately, they don’t. Photos of cute kids - especially babies - have been misappropriated by people who use them for their own, sometimes dubious, purposes. Baby role-playing, for example, involves young women who use random photos of children to fantasize about motherhood. By posting pics and inventing details about babies they don’t know, they attract attention on social media.

In these so-called digital kidnappings, the child may not be in physical danger. Still, most parents find it disconcerting to see their child’s face in someone else’s fantasy, especially if there’s a preoccupation with breastfeeding or bath time. In other cases, parents have stumbled across familiar photos that have been used in advertising or to create memes, those Internet placards that sometimes take on a life of their own.

Obviously, people vary a great deal in what they feel comfortable saying on social media, and parenthood doesn’t necessarily change that. Some new parents find they are very protective about a baby’s online presence; others become mommy bloggers who build a loyal following by chronicling intimate details about domestic life.

All parents should, however, think seriously about what impact a post that seems cute today might have on a child in the future. Just as couples need to negotiate what they are willing to share on social media, parents must also try to imagine how a child will feel when they are an eye-rolling eight-year-old, an easily embarrassed teen or a young adult looking for a job.

How can parents balance the benefits of social networking with its risks? Here are a few tips:

Use privacy settings. The report from Pew found that parents typically had 150 friends on Facebook, and of those, one-third were actual friends. Consider sharing photos of kids only with those friends. Most social media sites make it easy to establish different groups within your FB community (details about setting privacy settings for the main social media venues are available at socialmediaexaminer.com/social-media-privacy-settings). Go through your network and think about whether your relationship is close enough to share details about your child. Grandparents, other family members, close friends? Absolutely! Colleagues, associates and friends of friends? Probably not.

Share your re-share policy. Even if you are careful about privacy, photos can escape your network if they are re-shared. To discourage re-sharing, remind friends and family that photos are ‘for your eyes only.’ Talk to other parents too. Explain your concerns about over-sharing and ask that they not post photos of playdates and other outings without your permission. Extend the same courtesy to them.

Use a nickname. Instead of using your child’s real name, use a pseudonym. This makes it harder to connect an escaped photo with your family. It will also spare your child the embarrassment of having baby pics show up when someone googles them in the future.

Make copying difficult. A few techniques will make it harder for people to use your photos for other purposes. Try saving photos with the lowest possible resolution. Not only will the file transmit more quickly, but it will also be blurry if someone tries to enlarge it. Parents can also borrow a trick from professional photographers by putting a signature or watermark on photos. Visualwatermark.com is one of several free services that make it easy to brand digital pics.

No naked pictures. Ever. No matter how cute or innocent they may seem, naked pictures should not be posted online. Even if you don’t attract the attention of a predator or run afoul of the obscenity standards on your social network, you run the risk of distributing a picture that will be used to harass your child in the future.

Use an alternative album. Some parents use social media as a kind of baby album, keeping track of firsts as they happen. Really important photos deserve better protection. Try making albums on password-protected sites like Flickr or Photobucket. Share passwords only with family members and other trusted friends who really want to see all of your great photos. Back up photo files in the cloud and on a separate hard or flash drive. For photos that really matter, consider making prints or photo books, which are likely to last longer than any digital format.

Be selective. Taking digital pictures is soooo easy. Be ruthless about culling your photos. Review and delete at least once a week. And only share photos that are special in some way. Close-ups with only a few props tend to be more interesting, and they also make it harder for strangers to identify your child or locate your home. Post vacation pictures after you return home so people won’t know when your house is unoccupied.

Now that every cellphone includes a camera, parents also need to think about when photos are an intrusion. Yes, childhood is fleeting and a photo can help you remember. But photos can also turn you into an observer instead of a participant, especially if you are thinking ahead to the number of ‘likes’ a photo will get on social media. Instead of reflexively reaching for the camera, get in the habit of asking whether a photo will deepen - or interrupt - a special moment with your child.

Carolyn Jabs, MA, raised three computer-savvy kids including one with special-needs. She has been writing Growing Up Online for over 10 years and is working on a book about constructive responses to conflict. To read other columns, visit growing-up-online.com.

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