Laird Harrison

November 01, 2016

SAN FRANCISCO — Parents may harm their children's reputations by sharing too much about them on social media, researchers say.

Pediatrics professor Bahareh Keith, DO, MHSc, and law professor Stacey Steinberg, JD, both from the University of Florida in Gainesville, have teamed up to call for guidelines on social media use by caregivers.

"We want to shift the social discourse so we can balance the parent's right to share with the child's right to privacy," Steinberg told Medscape Medical News.

Dr Keith and Steinberg made their case here at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) 2016 National Conference and Exhibition.

Parents can benefit from the emotional support and practical advice they get by discussing their experiences with other parents in online forums, the professors acknowledged. "Social media can be a wonderful tool," said Steinberg.

But parents often post private information without realizing that it leaves an indelible, sometimes public record. "The information that parents place in the digital universe can reach far into children's past and far into their future," Steinberg said.

For example, a comment about a parent's struggle with potty training a child could pop up in an Internet search when the child encounters cyberbullying in middle school or applies for a job.

Photographs can be copied and shared repeatedly, reaching a much wider audience than parents intended.

One study in Australia found that half of all photographs on pedophilia websites had been pirated from social media. "That right there just gave me chills," Dr Keith told Medscape Medical News. "That just quantifies that it's a much bigger risk than I knew. They were not partial nude pictures, they were just pictures of people doing normal things. So it's extremely disturbing."

Some European countries have recognized a legal right to privacy that allows an individual to force Internet companies to delete information or links to websites. But the United States has not established such a legal framework, said Steinberg, a former prosecutor.

Children's rights to privacy are enshrined in the United Nations' Convention on the Rights of the Child. But the United States Senate never ratified that treaty.

Courts in the United States have put freedom of speech ahead of privacy, she said. The law gives guardians the role of gatekeeper in making decisions about children's privacy, she said, but in this case, parents have a conflict of interest.

And the problems can go beyond embarrassment, Dr Keith warned. Kidnappers or identity thieves can also make use of information posted about children. Sometimes information about the time and place a photograph was taken is embedded in the metadata that travel with the photograph.

"That's where the public health model comes in," Dr Keith said. "It's extremely effective." Pediatricians could offer anticipatory guidance to parents about the way they use social media, much like the guidance they offer about car seats or sudden infant death syndrome, he added.

The two researchers are recommending the following precautions for parents:

  • Know your social media sites' privacy policies.

  • Set up notifications to alert you when your child's name is online and is available through a search on Google.

  • Parents who choose to share about their children's behavioral struggles should consider opting to share anonymously.

  • Use caution before sharing your child's location.

  • Consider giving older children "veto power" over online disclosures.

  • Consider the risks before posting pictures of children in any state of undress.

  • Consider the effect sharing can have on your child's future well-being.

It is hard to determine how much harm is being done, because there has been very little research into that question, Dr Keith acknowledged.

"This is novel," agreed Dimitri Christakis, MD, MPH, professor of pediatrics and director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development in Seattle, Washington. "It's important. It's something I wonder about."

When his own children became teenagers, they chastised him for posting pictures of them on Facebook without their permission, he said.

Pediatricians typically counsel adolescents to be careful about what they post, because it leaves a digital footprint, he told Medscape Medical News.

"But we don't counsel parents. Most parents are probably more clueless than our patients," he said.

Stacey Steinberg, Dr Keith, and Dr Christakis have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) 2016 National Conference: Abstract 319978. Presented October 22, 2016.


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