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Sharenting? Be Cautious
Parents sharing children's photos online poses serious questions
By Lu Yan | NO. 15 APRIL 14, 2016



As social media adoption rates continue to increase around the world, many young parents are keen on posting photos of their children—sometimes on a daily basis—on social networking platforms. In China, the most popular social media platforms are instant messaging app WeChat and Twitter-like Weibo, which are also common for seeing these types of posts. In fact, parents sharing cute faces of their children to relatives and friends online even has its own word: "sharenting."

"Sharing makes life more fun," a Beijing woman surnamed Liu told Beijing Review. She is the mother of a 3-year-old boy. "I like to see my friends' babies and would also like them to see mine," she added.

However, oversharing can be dangerous. Recently, the Belgian Federal Police suggested parents stop sharing photos of their kids online, in order to protect their children's privacy and avoid child-related crimes.

Similarly, France's National Gendarmerie, or national police force, has warned that parents should be more careful when posting pictures of their offspring on social media and sharing them with the public. Moreover, parents could end up facing jail time, a hefty fine of up to 45,000 euros ($51,000), or even being sued by their children in the future, if they were found guilty of violating the country's privacy laws.

The steps taken by the two countries went viral among Chinese Internet users. Is it necessary for China to issue similar warnings to protect the privacy of children and avoid lurking dangers?

A parents' right?

Many parents are so proud of their kids that they just cannot resist the temptation to share their children's special moments online. In China, movie and TV stars also frequently share delicately touched-up pictures of their kids on Weibo, which often attract lots of attention and "likes" from fans. This behavior by celebrities may influence the behavior of other young parents.

"I don't see anything wrong with posting a photo of the child that I created. Isn't it one of the privileges of being a parent?" asked a mother surnamed Gu, who has a 6-year-old boy.

Wang, the mother of a 7-year-old child, shared the same view. "That's overthinking," she said. "If posting [pictures of] my own child is a violation of the law, I don't see anything I can do."

A police officer in Beijing's Xicheng District surnamed Zhao also thought that it was unnecessary to take sharenting so seriously. "In recent years, there are few child safety cases involving online posting in our district," he said to Beijing Review in a recent interview. "Parents usually share their kids' photos on WeChat, a relatively safe place, where only a very limited circle of friends or acquaintances can see their posts. No one is foolish enough to put their own kids in danger."

He also said that fining or jailing parents for posting their own children's photos was unfeasible in China as traditional parenting values suggest that parents have the right to dispose of their kids' possessions, including their photos. From his perspective, children may get mad when they find out that their parents read their diary, but posting their photos is hardly a kind of privacy violation to them.

More caution needed

While it may be common sense for parents to be careful about what they share and on what platforms—public versus private, etc., what if some just don't want to? Will they be forced to? Will the warning of France's National Gendarmerie change behavior in China?

Zhao Hui, a lawyer with the Beijing Juvenile Legal Aid and Research Center, expects that such warnings may not cause a big change. She admitted that under the influence of traditional Chinese ethical concepts, parents were the absolute authority over their offspring. Generally speaking, it rarely occurs to children that their photos appearing on their parents' social networking account is a serious issue. If a child sued his or her parents for privacy infringement, he or she would be seen as "unfilial."

Blair Koenig, a New York-based author and creator of STFU Parents, a submission-based public service blog that mocks parents who overshare on social networking sites, said, "Most parents don't consider their children's identities (or future selves) when their children are babies as much as they probably should."

Article 16 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1989 says, "No child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his or her honor and reputation." The Law of the People's Republic of China on the Protection of Minors also states that no organization or individual may disclose the personal secrets of minors.

Zhao was also concerned about the outright disregard for child privacy protection. "No matter how young a child is, he or she still is the subject of human rights, which include privacy rights, and the right to control the use of his or her image," she asserted. "Parents should give them full respect. Besides, children are entitled to voice their opinions on family affairs related to them."

More attention should therefore be paid to the risks of oversharing online. One of the dangers is that abductors or kidnappers may track a kid from a picture's background, which may threaten the child's safety. Another is that kids' photos will be stolen and sold to intermediary agencies for commercial purposes.

"On Weibo, there are some unscrupulous businessmen putting stolen photos on forged search notices for ill-gotten gains," said Zhao. Even worse, faces, heads or other body parts in the photos might be photo-shopped onto pornography and spread on illegal websites.

Koenig gave her suggestion: "Parents should be self-aware and always asking themselves, 'Is this image or story necessary to share with the world?' They should consider their child's feelings—today and in the future—and they should accept that privacy settings… are not a solution for staying 'private.' Friends and relatives can easily share and distribute that content, and on the Internet, nothing is truly private, but everything does last forever. So if you make a mistake and post something you later regret (or that your kids may regret), it's very hard to scrub it from the Internet."

She also believes, however, that it is unnecessary to refrain from posting pictures of children altogether. That's "because no one should feel restricted from participating in what is now a very common way of life," she said, adding, "Social media is meant to be a portrayal of one's life."

The author is an intern with Beijing Review

Copyedited by Mara Lee Durrell

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