Mamarama: Online Stranger Danger

Online Stranger Danger: What are the true risks?

Last week a mom from a suburban New York community told me that amongst her friends, there is an accepted “rule” that you are not allowed to take photos of anyone else’s kid but your OWN. This is to prevent the possibility of sharing those images on Facebook or any other site where the parent does not have control over who can view those pictures.

I asked if that included sports events, field trips, birthday parties, and just plain old fun gatherings at your home. She answered, “Yes, we all really frown upon it and are quite adamant about protecting our kids.” This mom and her community are not some fringe group of over-protective families. These days many parents are inclined to follow a “no photos please” rule across the board – for the safety of their children. I imagined a mom yanking her son out of a group birthday photo which might end up on a social media site; I wondered what kind of message that sends to the kid and the others in that photo?

When I hear a story like this I’m curious to understand the protective motivation for such militance. Discussing it with one of my dad friends he asked, “Well, do you want some pedophile ogling pictures of your girls?

“Of course not,” I answered. “But I just don’t think that happens. I don’t actually believe that is a regular occurrence or a viable threat.” My cavalier response surprised him.

Let’s put this issue in perspective by taking it back a decade or so. Once upon a time we took photographs with our little cameras that used celluloid-covered material called film. The camera made an image on the celluloid in reverse, then was run through a process that created an actual photograph on light-sensitive paper that we picked up from the store several days after we dropped it off. If there was ever a worry, it was the vague concern that some prankster teenager operating the printing machine might make a duplicate photo of you in a bikini or your husband on the toilet. Unlikely – but still a possibility. Print photos seem so antiquated and inconvenient…pieces of paper with images on them, subject to fading, ripping, water-damage and being lost forever in a shoebox that was left behind in the move.

These days, digital images are so thoroughly commonplace that my guess is millions of kids will never have proper photo albums to pore over when they’re adults and become parents themselves. Instead it might be, “Come cuddle up with Daddy and we’ll log-into Grandma’s old Tumblr account!”  With the pros and cons of digital photos comes the inevitable ability and desire to share those precious moments with others. And when we share in the wild, wild west of the internet, we must acknowledge that there are potential dangers lurking in the shadows.

What are the actual online risks for our kids? Are we truly putting our children (AND our friend’s children) in danger by posting an innocuous photo of the soccer game on Facebook or Flickr?

Might some warped individual target my child via photos I’ve posted and try abducting him? Or is it a more discomforting knowledge that our child’s image may be used for illicit activities that no parent wants to even imagine, let alone fixate on. My dad friend says, “Yes – I am sickened by the thought that some pervert out there might be salivating over photos of my daughter. You better believe I want to protect her from that!”

Of course, who in their right mind wouldn’t want to protect from that?  However, experts say that there is so much readily available “inappropriate child photography” out there, that a pedophile is not going to waste time perusing your tasteful family albums on Facebook searching for a thrill. It’s a disquieting thought, but when the FBI baits pedophiles, they go to online chatrooms and websites known for distributing child pornography — not your Facebook account.

Still, the notion makes every parent wince with discomfort. To better understand the likelihood of this type of online threat I went to the authorities on the topic, the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), in Washington, D.C. Jennifer Hanley, Legal & Policy Director, says that concerns about predators either tracking down your children online or using their images for unsavory activities are largely unfounded. She states that certain reality TV shows and sensational news programs breed a “techno-fear” in the hearts of concerned parents. “It’s important to note that research shows there is virtually no risk of predators coming to get kids because they found them online,” she adds.

Occasionally what might happen to a few unlucky parents is that their child’s image is used falsely, perhaps in an adoption scam or in an advertisement you might never find out about.

If we can remove those “stranger danger” fears from the equation, what concerns should parents actually be aware of?  “When it comes to posting pictures of kids online, parents do need to think about the impact on kids and the fact that often, what goes online stays online,” says Stephen Balkam, CEO of FOSI. “This means that parents may want to avoid pictures and anecdotes that may later embarrass kids or even have a negative impact on their career or college prospects. We definitely encourage parents to use privacy settings and limit who they are sharing information and photos with.”

What FOSI strongly recommends is that you give consideration to your own digital reputation and your digital footprint – including that print of your child. Parents who blog about their kids should avoid personally identifiable information and in some cases, ask for permission from the kids before posting.

Perfect example is Una LaMarche, a young adult author who writes a very popular blog called “The Sassy Curmudgeon.”  When she became a mother she naturally wrote about her son and her hilariously self-deprecating foray into new parenthood. Una thought ahead about her son’s “digital footprint” choosing never to use his first name; otherwise, he would be searchable for internet eternity and forever linked to his mother’s blog. “Every time I mention him in my public writing I ask myself, ‘Would my 15-year-old son be humiliated by this?’ And if the answer is yes, or even maybe, I won’t share that anecdote. Obviously my future teenage son will be humiliated by much of what I’ve written about myself, but I never want him to feel that I invaded his privacy.”

As parents, we need to set the first example and be mindful of FOSI’s phrase “what goes online  – STAYS online” before we help our children make smart and responsible choices. For those with older children, discussing internet etiquette and safety should be an ongoing conversation.  Every few months new devices and apps are available; teenagers in particular keep exploring their online options and gravitate to the trendiest apps or social media sites. Teens should be reminded that their online activities can be viewable by college admission officers and future employers. In fact, according to FOSI, “Seventy percent of recruiters have rejected applicants based on what they’ve found online.”  That is a rather sobering fact. If you bring this up to your kids every so often, reminding them that their “imprint” can have lasting ramifications, they might think twice before posting a “scandalous” photo of their best friend or themselves.  Even if your teen thinks he’ll outsmart the admissions dean by deleting his Facebook account, he (and his comments) can still be searchable within his friends’ tags.

Without becoming overly paranoid, the advice from FOSI is to use the internet and social-media tools wisely. Be aware of the privacy locks on all sites – and take a minute to test them. Facebook has a setting that allows you to view your pages from the outside; try that to see what’s viewable by the “public.” Sharing photos with family via Flickr or Picasa is a wonderful tool, but be sure those images are password-protected and can only be accessed by those you’ve shared the link with. Periodically search your name and your child’s name especially under “images” and be aware of what’s been tagged and linked to that name.

“It’s important to convey your family values and beliefs about what is right and isn’t right over time,” Mr. Balkam adds. “Make wise choices about the content you share, the people you contact and the way you conduct yourself online. For us, that’s being a good digital citizen.”

Parents may still want to tightly guard their children’s images online – but it’s helpful to have realistic reactions to photo-taking and be aware of what the actual dangers might be. In time, your own teen might do more damage to her image by emulating the “Spring Breakers” bikini and ski-mask look – so don’t hesitate to have those talks about “digital footprints” before some Dean of Admissions shakes his head with judgment.

photo by Jayne Freeman

*This blog first appeared in in April 2013.*

Jayne Freeman

is the host of the long-time public access show Mamarama as seen locally on Comcast Cable (channel 51) and on YouTube. In addition to her parenting program she is a certified childbirth educator and regularly writes about the parental experience.