A photograph of a father holding his sick little boy is simply an example of parental affection, right? But it can provoke a virulent reaction when it’s posted on Facebook and the protagonists are naked under the refreshing spray of water in the shower.

Photographer Heather Whitten captured her one-year-old son Fox in this pose, suffering from salmonella poisoning, as his father tried to lower his fever and better manage episodes of vomiting and diarrhoea in the shower. Taken in November 2014, the photo was posted on the social media site in May 2016, only to be removed several times due to multiple reports of violations of the child’s rights. The family also received a visit from child protection workers who had been informed of the incident by anonymous people. Heather Whitten said she was unprepared and even intimidated by the negative reactions to what she saw as a “positive”, “normalising” image of nudity in the family. The BBC article commenting on her story captured the polarisation of internet users regarding the photo from the headline, interrogatively placing the post between the extremes of disgust and beauty.

One of the negative comments—to which the photographer responded, citing differences in family patterns and values—was about crossing a line: exporting an intimate moment into a public space.

Too young to have an ID, but old enough to be on Facebook

When posts and photos on Facebook involve a child (even if it’s not nudity), the discussion takes on a more delicate tone, although opinions on the consequences of such exposure are as divided as parents’ behaviour in this virtual meeting place.

The minimum age for creating a Facebook account is 13 in both the EU and the US. But the reality is that no one checks this requirement, and opening an account using false information is no problem for a child. What’s more, there are countless dangers lurking for the young Facebook user who has entered this minefield, where he or she can be caught up in an explosion of situations straight out of fiction. One of these is the case of a teacher who set up a fake account on the popular social networking site to get in touch with his 13-year-old pupil, from whom he obtained compromising photos as a means of blackmail.

Parents can be part of the solution if they closely monitor their child’s online activities and are willing to talk about the problems they encounter online. Alternatively, parents can be part of the problem if they lack the necessary digital skills or are social media addicts who unwittingly post information and images, including about their own children, exposing them to potential dangers and encouraging copycat behaviour.

The invasion of social sites starts at birth (at the latest)

It is not easy for parents to explain the need for restraint and selectivity in exposing their private lives when their child is on Facebook from the first hour after birth or, why not, from a few weeks after conception.

For every parent, the child is the centre of their world, and parental affection and pride can easily creep into decisions to post images that capture the child at different stages of development: in touching, funny or even embarrassing poses for the child at an age when they may see the images from a different perspective to their parents.

A UK study by Nominet found that in 2016, the average parent posted 1,498 photos of their child by the age of 5, an average of 300 photos per year, with the top three destinations being Facebook (54%), Instagram (16%) and X, formerly Twitter (12%). To complete the picture, 24% of parents don’t know much about privacy settings, 20% allow friends of friends to see posted content and 45% restrict access to photos to friends only—while only 10% can say that all their Facebook friends have the same status outside of cyberspace.

Worse still, only 16% are in the habit of asking a person’s permission before posting their picture online—which brings us to the icing on the cake of ignoring the right to privacy: parents have uploaded a photo of someone else’s child almost 30 times in a single year. Marina Fogle, a prenatal expert (who, incidentally, regularly uploads photos of her children to her Facebook accounts, but with the appropriate privacy settings), says that getting permission from the person whose photo you want to post is part of the 21st century code of social media etiquette.

Predictably, when the “vigilant” side meets the “laissez faire” side, the arguments flare, as a New York Times article notes.

The arguments of the pro-online exposure group 

For Elizabeth Hunter, posting pictures of her two-year-old daughter on her website is an experience of coming to terms with a digital reality from which we can no longer escape.

“Hundreds of kids die in swimming pools every year, but we don’t shut down all the pools. We teach kids how to swim,” she says, noting that she would never post pictures of her daughter completely naked, but finds pictures of her in the bathtub bathing acceptable. Hunter is aware that the risk of a predator finding a person through public information cannot be eliminated, but she argues that child abduction by a stranger is a rarity rather than a common occurrence.

Posting pictures and names of children on her website is common practice for writer Rebecca Woolf, except that the absence of nudity is a rule she does not break. However, she’s not entirely at peace with her choice, as evidenced by the conflicting feelings she has when trying to draw the line between good and evil in a medium so new, that “none of us know what is going to happen”.

Professor David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes against Children Research Centre at the University of New Hampshire, believes that the danger to a child from the presence of their images online has been greatly distorted. While not ruling out the possibility of paedophiles obtaining images of minors from Facebook, Finkelhor believes that they are more likely to seek out child pornography on sites where it is more easily accessible, rather than on a social networking site where most images are as innocent as possible.

The arguments of vigilant parents

Arguments to protect children’s privacy are not absent from the ranks of vigilant parents, whose fear of possible repercussions for their children’s wellbeing is not the only deterrent to the temptation of constantly showing them off in the virtual world. Still, they admit that their arguments sometimes fall flat in the face of the insistence of family or friends who dismiss their concerns as exaggerated, if not paranoid.

British journalist Lucy Mangan is one of the mothers who refuses to post pictures of her child on Facebook, explaining in an article for The Guardian why she has chosen to be reluctant when the trend is more about showing off. The article does not seek to judge parents who make different choices, and even ends with a series of quotes from public figures, some for and some against posting pictures of their own children online.

Lucy admits that the choice she has made is not a comfortable one, and her attitude, which is portrayed as one of superiority, elicits puzzled reactions when it is not the target of outright sarcasm. Nevertheless, the journalist argues for her decision, placing it in the realm of pertinence and prudence.

First of all, any parent who has news to share about their child (and of course every day brings an avalanche of topics to discuss) should wisely discern who the ideal addressee is. While a grandmother, aunt or other close family member may be genuinely fascinated by the endless details of a child’s every word, gesture or new skill, it is unrealistic—the journalist warns us—to imagine that interest can be extrapolated to the entire friend list, especially since some are mere acquaintances, if not strangers, about whom we know nothing.

And quite apart from the fact that it might save a significant number of virtual friends from boredom, stopping the frenzy of posting photos and information about children should also be a matter of parental concern for the safety of what is “the most precious and vulnerable possession.” If there are safety risks, they should successfully counterbalance any impulse generated by the pleasure of sharing the joys of parenthood in an environment of potential dangers.

A third reason why parents should moderate their compulsive posting, notes Lucy, is concern for their children’s image and feelings, illustrating her argument with the very famous example of the young girl who sued her own parents over hundreds of pictures of her posted on their Facebook account.

Finally, the journalist admits that the hardest battle is with people who think it’s OK to post pictures of a child who doesn’t belong to them just because “everyone else is doing it”—from teachers to classmates’ parents to friends. Behaviour that has become commonplace is rarely questioned, but respect for another’s choice should be the hallmark of parents, however they choose to raise and protect their children.

Roma Kojima confesses in an article she wrote for Today’s Parents that although she loves social media, she has never posted a single photo of her pregnancy, nor would she expose her child on social media other than a brief announcement at birth. She opts for more private ways of sharing snippets of her baby’s life with family and friends, and one of her arguments is about her baby’s emotional development. How will the child’s self-image be affected by the avalanche of likes (or lack thereof) for a funny facial expression, word or phrase? Dependence on constant feedback of questionable value is a stress Kojima refuses to subject her child to.

Psychologist Yalda T. Uhls, a child development expert at Common Sense Media, warns of the influence of parental examples. Children pick up from their parents the idea that selfies and video images can satisfactorily adjust their social status. Her research shows changes in children’s behaviour on social media—some had no intention of posting their photos, but were convinced by frequent posts from parents or teachers that this was their launch pad to popularity.

And in the end, the regrets and excesses of laissez-faire parents become new reasons for the reluctant camp to take a firmer stand. Nearly 80% of respondents to “Society’s New Addiction: Getting a ‘Like’ over Having a Life” said they saw parents dilute the freshness of a birthday or other memorable child experience by trying to capture the perfect image first.

Facing statistical rarities

There is also a category—a minority—of people who have been affected by the exploitation of information they have made public, and whose experience more or less changed their perception of the consequences of exposing their privacy.

One such case was that of Brittany Champagne of Utah, who discovered that pictures of her daughters, aged 8 and 9, had found their way from her Facebook page (where she had expected them to be protected by privacy settings, which she apparently did not manage very well) to several pornographic sites. Although there was no nudity or anything objectionable in the pictures, they were tagged with sexual hashtags. Brittany felt an acute sense of guilt because nothing had prepared her for the nightmare that an innocent sharing of photos with friends on her page could result in the photos being stolen and exploited in a sordid environment. She feels that she has inadvertently contaminated her children’s naivety and fears that she won’t be able to find the right words to explain what happened when they have to talk about it.

In addition, parents should always be aware that the fate of a photo posted in a public space is quite uncertain, as Robert Neivert of Private.Me warns. Even if the person who posted the photo has taken privacy precautions, which should always be taken into account, the photo can still be circulated among friends by someone who is careless about privacy. There is also the risk that a personal or friend’s account could be hacked, allowing a hacker to obtain the material that has been shared.

Facts a parent with a Facebook account should not ignore

If there is one certainty about the safety of personal data shared by social media users, it is the inability to control the possible destinations of the information shared and the worst possible way it could be used. Costel Stanciu, president of the Romanian Association for Consumer Protection, points out that Facebook “does not provide sufficient safeguards for the processing of minors’ personal data” and also “does not clearly define the period of data retention; it does not provide users with adequate information and warnings about the risks to their privacy when uploading data to the platform.”

The constant exposure of children online brings a risk that needs to be understood and accepted, warns cybersecurity expert Susan McLean—that information, just like images, can be used in ways we do not like because we lose control over what we post online.

Up to 50% of photos posted on child pornography sites come from social media, where they have been uploaded mostly by parents, says Toby Dagg, senior researcher at the eSafety Commissioner. In fact, we’re talking about millions of innocent photos that, by adding suggestive messages, have become raw material for pornography sites. Whether they are aware of this data or not, parents are concerned about how their posted content could be hijacked, according to a March 2015 survey of 569 parents of children aged 0-4 by the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan. Some 68% of parents surveyed said they were concerned about their child’s privacy, 67% were worried about the fate of photos that had become public, and 52% wondered about the possibility of their children being embarrassed by them in the future.

On the other hand, more than half of parents appreciated the usefulness of social media in discussing issues that concern them, such as nutrition, discipline or children’s behavioural problems.

So there is a line to be drawn between risks and benefits, but it is not an easy one to draw, especially as families are so different. But caution seems to be the better card to play, at least when we know so little about this new environment to which we are exposing our lives and those of our loved ones.

Stacey Steinberg, professor of legal literacy at the University of Florida College of Law, and Bahareth Keith, assistant professor of paediatrics at the University of Florida College of Medicine, offer suggestions on how best to manage a child’s online footprint. For example, some information should be carefully censored, such as the child’s current location, while other information (such as behavioural problems) should be shared anonymously with other parents so as not to expose the child too much. The advice also includes respecting the child’s right to veto the publication of information about him or her and assessing how he or she might be affected by any subsequent posts.

Failure to respect a child’s wishes could, in extreme cases, lead to parent-child disputes being taken to court, as in the case of the young woman in Austria who exhausted her options to persuade her parents to delete hundreds of photos from their Facebook account and ended up taking them to court. Citing the photos that immortalised her in the most embarrassing posts, the young woman accused her parents of lacking “limit” and “shame” —a terrible accusation for anyone, let alone a parent.

Selling privacy cheap

Legally, the line is easier to draw—and the decision by the Romanian High Court of Cassation and Justice clearly demarcates the Facebook profile as a public space, making users responsible for the information they post and the way it is presented.

French law is strict on the issue of privacy. Posting a photo online without consent (whether of a stranger, a friend or even your own child) is punishable in France by up to a year in prison and a fine of €45,000 if there are complaints.

Beyond the legal aspect, defining precisely the line that separates what is moral from what is immoral, and what remains within the bounds of decency and good taste from what becomes superfluous and addictive, seems to have become a task as difficult as untying the Gordian knot without a sword.

One of the dramatic (and by no means reversible) losses in this process of free connection to the rest of the planet that has access to the virtual universe is the loss of privacy. In fact, nothing is free, except in appearance, precisely because we pay that price with the data we consciously or unconsciously provide.

For the more suspicious, since Orwellian 1984, Big Brother has been installed in the folds of the transparent 21st century, relieved of the task of spying in the most inventive ways on its citizens, who are so keen to strip themselves of any vestige of privacy in public anyway. For others, the rise of the virtual offers the opportunity for a brave vivisection of how we perceive and manage our own image.

Some public figures have said that Facebook initially triggered an utterly embarrassing addiction to posting and checking reactions to their own posts, which was broken by temporarily or permanently closing their account. In this feverish, time-consuming and energy-sapping activity, they have detected the seeds of a vanity that is all the more regrettable because it is easier to detect in the rest of the inhabitants of the digital city than in themselves. And perhaps it is from here, from the transparency of the reasons for which we reveal ourselves to the world, that the process of selecting the shared news should begin.

Teodor Baconschi, in his essay “Facebook: The Narcissism Factory”, highlights the mechanisms that make us ignore every virtual trap, absorbed in our ” trivial ego parade.”

Starting with the hard-to-disprove principle that “Facebook is about me”, the author captures the narcissistic roots of this relentless race to be seen, noticed and, not least, rewarded with likes. Too often, users assume that everything they do, think, see or feel is of general human interest. As a result, we end up in a situation where everyone has trivial or inviolable information about everyone else, from the calorie content of dinner to the exorbitant price of the latest pair of shoes bought, from the number of flowers received on a romantic evening to the aphorism unleashed by the latest argument with an ungrateful boyfriend or disagreeable mother-in-law.

The selfie, “the latest fad in self-aggrandisement”, cannot be left out of the picture either. In fact, to paraphrase Orwell, it’s a double-cross: “Everyday life is devoured by its perpetual orchestration.” From another point of view, of course, it is a half-lived life in which we waste time and energy recounting and re-enacting experiences (whose common denominator is “presenting the self as an advertising product”), time that could be more profitably invested in direct interactions.

A critical look at our Facebook page might show us where we are on this merry-go-round of self-promotion. Surely we will realise that some mistakes could easily have been avoided, with all their quaint notes, and that some images and experiences would be better off resting in the family archives.

If history has accelerated in this contraction of space and time in the grips of technology, we will not be able to remain impervious to its changes. But perhaps we will think twice before stripping our lives bare on a stage watched by millions, especially when the losses outweigh the gains. And for a parent, gain is never an abstract concept—it is always attached to a child’s smile.

Carmen Lăiu is an editor at the Signs of Times Romania and ST Network.