Sharing photos of your kids online? Here’s what you should consider.

A child sits in an adult's lap as both of them use individual smart phones

Stacey Steinberg, a professor at the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law, offers parents tips on what to consider as they and their children navigate social media. Credit: Shutterstock.

Welcome to From Florida, a podcast where you’ll learn how minds are connecting, great ideas are colliding and groundbreaking innovations become a reality because of the University of Florida. 

Today’s parents are the first to raise children alongside social media and this generation of children is the first to grow up constantly “shared” online. Stacey Steinberg, a professor at the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law is an expert on “sharenting” and the intersection of parents’ and children’s rights in the online world. In this episode, Steinberg shares her thoughts on how these rights can collide and roles of parents, tech companies and government in keeping children safe. She also offers parents tips on what to consider as they and their children navigate social media.

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Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida where you'll learn how minds are connecting, great ideas are colliding and groundbreaking innovation is becoming a reality because of the University of Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown.

Today I'm delighted to welcome Stacey Steinberg to the podcast to share her research on an issue of concern to many parents — how to protect the privacy and safety of their children online.

Stacey is a professor at the Levin College of Law and oversees the Gator TeamChild Juvenile Law Clinic and the Center on Children and Families. She is an expert in “sharenting,” where a parent’s right to share online and the child's interest in privacy intersect. In addition, Stacey is the author of Growing Up Shared: How Parents Can Share Smarter on Social Media and What You Can Do To Keep Your Family Safe In A No-Privacy World.

We obviously have a lot to talk about on this subject, so let's get started. Hello Stacey!

Stacey Steinberg: Hi, thank you so much for having me here today.

Nicci Brown: It's terrific to have you. So let's start with how you became interested in children's use of and safety on social media. What was the catalyst?

Stacey Steinberg: I think it was a perfect combination of my love of photography. It's my hobby, my expertise and my research as a children's rights attorney, and the reality that I'm a mom of three kids trying to figure this out on my own. I started writing about my experience as a mom, right around the same time that I shifted from being a child abuse prosecutor to being a law professor. And I was writing about the mundane and the daily, all the things that go along with motherhood and work motherhood.

And I started to feel that what I was sharing online about my kids could cause them harm, but I didn't really know what that harm would be or how. I just knew from my time in the courtroom, that the decisions we make as adults can often impact our kids. And sometimes in ways that we don't understand until many years later.

So much of the attention that I was hearing focused on online sharing really focused on what kids were doing and the mistakes kids were making online. There was very little attention and very little guidance focused on parents and what parents were doing and how they could better protect their children's privacy online. So, I dip my toe on the water really to try to solve a problem. I was experiencing in my own family. I had no idea that it would make such a splash, that it would help or at least start a conversation for families around the world.

Nicci Brown: And we are in an unprecedented era when it comes to children's engagement with screens and the use of social media. Can you set the stage for us with your perspective on that particular aspect of what we're experiencing?

Stacey Steinberg: Certainly. We are the first generation of parents to raise kids alongside social media and our kids are the first generation to grow up shared. There's so much information that's out there online about kids that other people are sharing about them, whether it's schools, organizations or parents. And then as kids get older, they're also sharing a lot of information about themselves. We know that machine learning and artificial intelligence is often used to collect and collate information about people.

And so we're in, as you said, an unprecedented era of information collection and information sharing, and we really don't know how all of this will affect this next generation as they come of age alongside social media with digital footprints, partially of their own making, but often digital footprints that others have made for them.

Our experiences as adults who were once children don't really translate well in this social media minefield. My experiences in the school lunchroom, for example, are very different than my child's experience trying to navigate social situations on Snapchat. And the way that our kids interact with others has just changed so much. I really don't know what the long-term impacts will be. I imagine there will be a lot of drawbacks, but I think there will also be some benefits to our connectivity that we're experiencing now. And one thing that I really want to encourage families to do is not to fear the technology, but to try to learn about it.

When I did this work, I was always . . .  really got a chuckle when I think about other areas where we've seen new technology develop and the instant reaction has been fear, only later to learn that there are so many benefits. Even Plato once was afraid of the devastation and the danger of so much writing that would be taking place and thought that writing could actually harm young minds. So, my perspective on this is that we really need to look at this carefully, to not rush to judgment and to invite children into the conversation as they get older because really this issue is going to affect them a lot more than it will affect us.

Nicci Brown: And I think part of what you're saying, too, is an intentionality when it comes to the way that we do share things and really thinking about it. Because I recall sometimes as a journalist asking parents if we can share the photograph that we might take of a child or getting permission slips, but then when it's our children, we don't give it a second thought.

Stacey Steinberg: Yeah, exactly. I've always been very intentional with my work when I take pictures of other people's kids, when I was doing pictures for UF Health and for families there. Even when I was a prosecutor and there were stories or information that families needed me to share with the court or with others, always making sure that it was the right thing to do. the right way to tell it, with everyone's blessings.

But my own family was very different. I became a photographer when my second child was about a year old and my role of memory-keeper and memory-revealer were constantly in flux. I was sharing my way through motherhood without a care in the digital cloud only to one day wake up and realize that I had done a lot without thinking about it and realizing that unless I stopped and paused, I really was creating potentially real issues for my kids growing up.

It's funny, a lot of people call me an expert in sharenting, but I'm really doing this alongside all of the other families trying to figure it out. And the things that I thought I knew when I started this research — even the things that I believed I knew after I wrote my first academic paper — it’s constantly changing and growing as I see how social media impacts our family.

Nicci Brown: What about the pandemic? How do you think this has impacted how families are using social media?

Stacey Steinberg: Well, when we went into lockdown and social distancing became the norm, families still needed ways to stay socially connected, and social media really filled that role for a lot of families. It was where families would go to, to see how friends were doing, even friends down the street that they could no longer see, just like they were seeing family across seas and how the pandemic was facing families there.

I even saw schools using social media to stay connected with kids. A lot of my kids' teachers would have different Facebook groups where the kids would be able to stay in touch. I also had to start thinking about my own kids and how much social media I wanted them to have access to because before the pandemic, I really wanted to keep them away from it — probably a lot of other families did as well. But when the pandemic hit, and that was the way that they could communicate with their friends, like through Facebook messenger, I had to lean in a little bit and consider that maybe social media could really play a helpful role during a time of social distancing.

Nicci Brown: So, it really is about balance?

Stacey Steinberg: Absolutely.

Nicci Brown: What are some of those concerns, though? The dangers? I mean, as parents, we all want to post those cute photos of our children, and I'm definitely guilty as charged, but should we?

Stacey Steinberg: Well, I think for every family the answer's going to be different. I can tell you what the risks are and then I'll tell you a little bit about why it's hard to weigh these risks against the benefits. We know that there are risks that data brokers are collecting the information that we're sharing about ourselves, and it's likely they can collect the information that we're sharing about our kids as well. There's a Barclays study out that says that by the year 2030, almost two-thirds of all identity theft cases will be related to what parents are sharing online about their kids.

Just think about all the safety mechanisms that we've used in our passwords — our pet's first name or our mother's maiden name. A lot of that information is now readily available for this next generation.

We also know that pedophiles take advantage of what families share and can be saving those pictures and using them for bad purposes. A startling statistic that I heard when I started my work was that the Australian eSafety commissioner had said that 50%, five-zero, 50% of all images on pedophile image-sharing sites had originated on family blogs and on social media. And these weren't pictures of children nude. They were pictures of kids doing everyday activities, but they were being targeted by pedophiles and collected and then being used for bad purposes.

So, we know that there are these real, tangible risks out there, but we don't really know how to measure these risks yet. We don't know how common these occurrences are as far as academic studies that have faced strong methodology. These are studies that we've seen anecdotally by private corporations or sometimes by governments outside of the United States. So, I would love to see more research right here at home that really helps us understand how common these risks are to our families.

I've really focused on some of the less tangible risks that I think are also very important and much easier for me to measure as a parent. The importance of modeling appropriate social media behavior, for example. If we want our teenagers to get to an age where they take pictures of other people, only when they ask first, and they only share pictures of others when they have permission from that other person. Well, the only way we're going to teach them to do that is by modeling it at home. If I want my 15-year-old son to practice good social media etiquette, I could tell him all day long what I think he should do. But if I show him by respecting his views on what's shared about him, I think that I can go a lot further than just telling him why it's important.

I also think that we spend a lot of time stuck in our newsfeeds, spending time being connected to our devices instead of living in the moment that we're in. When I was on a school field trip, for example, I saw all the fourth graders pull out their recording devices to try to record the lecture that the guest speaker was giving. We were in St. Augustine and I just remember this beautiful site that we were at and all this helpful information we were receiving, but all the kids were really experiencing it through their screens.

Nicci Brown: And these were fourth graders?

Stacey Steinberg: Yeah, these were fourth graders! And I think that it's a danger that we’re not staying in the moment, that we’re escaping to our newsfeed or that we're constantly posting and seeing who's liked our images and liked what we've said instead of focusing on real connections with the people in front of us.

Also, a lot of times when we share all this information, people who are friends to us are still strangers to our kids. And so when our kids interact with people, say at the grocery store, and they say, "Oh my goodness, I saw you hit the home run at the baseball game." It might be confusing for a child because we've taught them about perhaps the risks of stranger-dangers, or we've taught them about privacy. But then when people that they don't know come up to them and know a lot about them, I think that it raises some red flags and it could create some issues for families.

Lastly, I think one of the areas that I've seen in my own life, really applies to me so much, is that when we're constantly documenting something, in some ways we're rewriting the memories that we have of it.

Even when I went to give my Ted Talk in Vienna last month, I remember I was up on stage giving my rehearsal. I was giving a rehearsal of the event and there was a speaking coach there. And when I got off the stage, she had told me I had done a really nice job and I was excited. But then my husband showed me the recording that he made of me up on that stage. And all of a sudden, I didn't feel as empowered as I felt when I first stepped off the stage. Instead, I was second-guessing my choice of attire or the way my voice sounded because of this recording, instead of just enjoying the memory that I had from actually being on the stage.

I want our kids to be able to grow up remembering experiences from their perspectives. I want my daughter to remember the first time she went to Disney World on her own terms, not by the edited and curated view that I chose to post on my newsfeed that she goes back and looks at one day.

Nicci Brown: That's a really important point. You know, this balance that you mentioned earlier of parents modeling, but also acting as hall monitors in a way for their children when they are online. Can you tell us more, though? What about the role that you think tech companies should have in this whole dynamic?

Stacey Steinberg: That's a great question. And I think we're seeing overseas a lot of pressure being placed on tech companies to be more responsible. And we're seeing here at home, we're starting to see some congressional hearings on it. I think that there's actually congressional hearings happening this week on protecting kids online. It's called “Instagram and Reforms for Youth Users.”

So, we're starting to see that there's some societal accountability being placed on tech companies. And I've been skeptical about how companies have been doing. I haven't been thinking that companies had been doing a very good job trying to protect kids. Every now and then I see a glimmer of hope though. And I'd be happy to tell you about that glimmer of hope that I've seen instead of telling you about all the things I wish tech companies would do that they aren't doing right now.

Nicci Brown: Always happy to hear hopeful things, so go for it.

Stacey Steinberg: Sure. When parents share about kids online, or when schools share about kids online, they're creating obviously these digital footprints about kids. And so when kids get older and someone searches their name on Google, it's likely that the information shared about them during childhood is going to rise to the top. And so, unlike you and I who kind of defined ourselves online on our own terms, a lot of kids don't really have that benefit right now.

In Europe, there is a concept called the “right to be forgotten,” which is actually a century-old doctrine that says that after information is no longer relevant to a person's reputation or to a person's name, that they have a right, basically, to have society forget about it. And in the context of internet sharing in Europe, there was a case that held that the right to be forgotten did apply on Google.

There was a man who had a lot of bad business dealings in the ’90s. He got his business affairs in order later on, but every time someone searched for his name on Google, those bad business dealings, the articles reporting on it, would rise to the top. And he was actually able to convince a court that Google had to basically delete the connection to his name and those news articles.

The news articles still exist on the newspaper websites, but those results are no longer coming up when somebody searches his name on Google. I have always advocated that we should have a right to be forgotten in the United States for what parents share online about their kids.

When I went into labor with one of my kids, I had had quesadilla the night before from a local restaurant here in town. And a bunch of my friends also went into labor right after eating at that Mexican restaurant. And so the newspaper did a story about us and this wonderful quesadilla dish that will induce labor. Well, now my poor teenager, when someone searches his name in our town, that article comes up. Luckily, he thinks it's pretty funny.

But the United States really would have a hard time creating a right to be forgotten for that article, for example, not to show up when someone searches his name because in the United States, we have really strong, free speech protections and we really value parental autonomy, which really would come into play with regards to a right to be forgotten. But Google has recently said that teens and kids should have the equivalent of a right to be forgotten and Google, a company that is not part of the government, was able to create a form . . . has a form now that parents can fill out, that older kids can fill out and ask that pictures and information about youth be removed from the internet.

I think it focuses on pictures right now, but it's a really promising step that a company is recognizing that kids have unique needs and special needs when it comes to online sharing and that they need special protections. So, I love seeing that step that Google is taking, giving kids a way to request that pictures be taking off that are shared about them when they're kids. I wish more companies would do other things that could really help protect kids online.

Nicci Brown: Well, I mean this summer Apple announced plans to release new tools that would combat child pornography on iPhones and Facebook was set to release an Instagram platform for children. And then the companies delayed the rollout of those tools and apps after experts like yourself raised concerns. So it seems the pressures are being felt by companies.

Stacey Steinberg: Yeah. I think the companies are feeling pressure to do something. And when Apple's rollout came out, when they made the announcement that they plan to release these new tools, there were a lot of concerns made about privacy and how we could balance competing interests, keeping kids safe and protecting individual privacy. And we see this in other areas of the law that these issues have come up. The newest initiative that Apple has is that it will warn kids before sending out pictures of what their artificial intelligence believes are nude images. But they'll still allow kids to send these out. And it doesn't actually alert parents that these pictures are being sent out.

There were other features that Apple had announced that are no longer happening. One is that it was going to scan pictures on individual phones and iCloud, using artificial intelligence to predict which were known images of child pornography. That release has actually been paused over privacy concerns, which has caused a lot of backlash from children's safety experts. They really wanted this to go forward, but a lot of privacy experts, separate from children's privacy experts, privacy experts generally were concerned that this sort of artificial intelligence technology could be used in ways that could actually harm people further along. So, there are now through Apple more online safety tools for kids to find, to get resources and to get help. But the announcement that all of these changes would happen was really met with a lot of backlash. And so Apple had to really retreat. And they're still, I think, trying to slowly navigate the complex waters between privacy and safety, between giving parents control of their children's information and respecting children's ability to control their information themselves.

Nicci Brown: You touched on it a little bit earlier, but what is the federal government doing in comparison to actions in other countries?

Stacey Steinberg: Well, I hate to say it, but I think the federal government in the United States is behind what a lot of other countries are doing. Europe has the GDPR, which is a personal data protection law. Its framework focuses on ideas. There's actually seven key principles of lawfulness, fairness and transparency, purpose of limitation, data minimalization, accuracy, storage limitations, integrity and confidentiality and accountability. And these seven key principles I think most of us could probably agree on are really important for personal data protection.

But in the United States, we've been slow to roll out something similar. And perhaps it's because we have a different set of rights that individuals have here that needs to be balanced against the need for privacy and safety. I would love to see us do more. And there have been a lot of really great ideas thrown out. If we could find ways to minimize the amount of data that's collected about individuals to make sure that any artificial intelligence is used responsibly and ethically, and if we could find ways that we could better protect kids' privacy and make sure that families understand what it is that they're agreeing to and allowing when their families engaged in things online.

Nicci Brown: It does sound, though, that in the end parents must decide how much to share about their children online and they'll continue to have a primary role in monitoring and measuring their children's screen time.

Stacey Steinberg: Yeah, absolutely. Ultimately we are a country that strongly values parental autonomy. And so I find that it makes more sense for us to empower parents rather than try to regulate parents in this space. And so while I'm an attorney and finding legal solutions is really what I do a lot of the time, I think that in this situation, this isn't so much about regulating parents as it is about educating parents. And I think a public health model of child protection is really the way to go. Most parents want to do what's best for their kids. They just don't always have the tools necessary to do that.

Nicci Brown: And how has your own online sharing changed as a result of your research?

Stacey Steinberg: It's changed a lot. And in some ways, it's been like a pendulum swinging back and forth. The biggest change is that I give kids veto power. My kids have the ability to tell me when they want something shared or not. And sometimes they come to me wanting me to share things. I think that what's really important in my family is that my kids know that, yes, I share because I'm proud of them, but that I'd be proud of them even if they didn't want me to share. I also think deeply about how sharing will impact them now, but also in the future and are there ways from me to minimize the digital footprint that I've left behind in their childhood?

So, I try to delete pictures after I feel like they're no longer relevant or no longer need to be online. I spend a lot of time teaching my kids to be present and in the moment, which is something I struggle with all the time myself, I absolutely struggle with it. But being honest about that challenge I think is really helpful for kids.

I certainly try really hard in my own life and with my kids online to avoid sharing overly personal information, not to shame others who share differently than myself. In any social group, there's going to be a lot of different ways that parents choose to share. I think that this is a new area, this is a novel part of child-rearing and it needs to be a central part of child-rearing discourse. So just like when we go to coffee with other parents and talk about how can we feed our kids better? How can we discipline them better? How can we make them get their homework done more efficiently? This just needs to be part of that conversation. And so I think that this is now a central part of our conversations in our family, at our dinner table and when we're out with friends as well.

Nicci Brown: Some really great advice there. Is there anything else, any other tips that you would offer to parents and ways that they can ensure their children's safety and privacy online?

Stacey Steinberg: I'd encourage parents to make talking about children's privacy, a central part of what they do around the kitchen table. This is a really important topic and I think that it's glossed over a lot in family circles and family meetings.

Number two, I would say is that as a society, we really need to push for more research, more well-informed research to help guide parental decision-making so that we can empower families to make the best choices for their families. And number three, I would say, is that as we go through this process to give ourselves some grace. We are the first generation to try to do this. We'll make mistakes along the way, but as long as we can keep moving forward, learn from those mistakes and help our kids understand that process of figuring out how to share? Why to share? When to share? I think that will be a lot better as a society.

Nicci Brown: Stacey, thank you so much for joining us today.

Stacey Steinberg: Thank you. It was so wonderful to be here.

Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us for an episode of From Florida. I’m your host, Nicci Brown, and I’ll hope you’ll return for our next story of innovation from Florida.

UF News December 14, 2021