Your Life Simplified

Over-Sharenting? How to Protect Children’s Online Privacy

December 8, 2020

We live in a digital age where constantly sharing photos with friends and family over social media is the norm. Who else, besides friends and family, is seeing your posts? On this episode, Leah Plunkett, law professor and author of Sharenthood, speaks about the impact sharing information about your children online could have down the road. From privacy settings to location services and user agreements, Leah shares examples of the ways we may be over-sharenting and not know it. 

Scott Sturgeon: Welcome to another episode of Your Life, Simplified. My name is Scott Sturgeon. Again, I’ll be your host today. Today, we’ve got a really interesting guest. I think it’s going to make for a really exciting conversation. We have Leah Plunkett, she’s the associate dean for administration and director of academic success at the University of New Hampshire School of Law. She’s also an associate professor of legal skills, there as well. She’s a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School as well. Most interestingly, and I think really relevant to our conversation today, Leah is the author of “Sharenthood, which explores how the laws in the United States have influenced the current environment of how our information about us is shared, and specifically about our kids, how that’s shared online. So, with that in mind, Leah, welcome to the show.

Leah Plunkett: Thank you. I’m elated to be here.

Scott: Well, the feeling is mutual. So, Leah, just to get things started and lay the groundwork. Could you describe this concept of sharenthood? Sharenting is also the descriptor that gets thrown around a lot. Could you describe what that is specifically?  

Leah: Sharenting has a couple of different definitions. The one that most folks are familiar with, that I hear a lot in The New York Times parenting section for instance, is that sharenting refers to what parents say about children on social media. My definition is broader than that. While I think that what parents say about social media is a big part of sharenting, I don’t see it as the only part, Scott. Properly understood, I think sharenting is all of the ways that parents, but also grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, coaches, and other trusted adults, engage in any digital activities with children’s private information. So, again, social media is central to that, but sharenting also consists of using a smart device to monitor your child’s sleep patterns, having a smart assistant in your home, using an ad tech app to teach reading in school. So, sharenting is really a lot more ubiquitous than just social media by parents themselves.

Scott: That’s really interesting. I think, from my perspective, when we first had conversations around this topic, the social media aspect always jumped out to me. I think you see pictures of parents posting about their kid’s birthday on whatever social media platform, just a day, maybe their child’s doing something funny and they post that. Not if there’s a lot of thought maybe that goes into what’s the bigger ramifications of doing so. Interestingly, I like the concept that you bring up the additional elements of there’s all this data that’s being collected from all these different sources. So, if there’s an in-home speaker device that your child is now talking to, that data is being shared somewhere. So, the question is where and with who. I think that’s, at least from what I can see, the crux of a lot of your research. Is there anything specifically about your research and your findings that really jump out at you about what the scale of this is currently? Anything interesting about that?

Leah: The scale of this is enormous and what’s so difficult as a researcher is we really can’t completely quantify it at this point because when we engage in sharenting, we are typically doing so through products and services that have privacy policies and terms of use that are opaque to individual users. Researchers can certainly parse them but can’t do so for every product. Even when researchers do parse them, we know that there tend to be gaps in the legal terminology that are so big. You could drive a truck through that. So, in terms of your great framing, Scott, and a really big truck, not like a small little pickup truck. I live in New Hampshire, so this is a good metaphor for me. In terms of some of the things that really jumped out at me is that when you see privacy policies in terms of use that allowed tech companies to share data, to improve the user experience for marketing purposes, or with our third parties that support us, those are really big double-wide loopholes that allow companies to transmit information to data brokers, to use information in predictive analytics, to put information into AI systems. So, a couple of concrete examples, one is a great piece by the New York Times, just this past fall that looked at, and I’m paraphrasing here, how photos of kids, including toddlers posted on social media, we’re powering bleeding-edge surveillance technology. Facial recognition software developers were scraping social media sites and taking images that parents had sharented and using them to train facial recognition technology without any meaningful notification to parents or opportunity to opt in or out. And there was one state that had a law that made this problematic because it was biometric information, but in general, because parents have been clicking on that “I accept” terms and conditions of service, the companies were acting as if they were pretty much covered.

Another example that I think puts this into a little bit of perspective is a forecast by Barclays Bank that came out this fall, which said that by 2030, parental sharenting could cost almost 670 million pounds in online fraud or identity theft for kids. A lot of money. And if you think about it from the perspective, heaven forbid of a hacker and an identity thief getting their hands on a full name, full place, full date of birth, home address, and you managed to get the social security number from one of the many data breaches that have happened that have put them online. It’s really not that hard to put together a fraudulent credit application in a child’s name, particularly because there are very few legitimate reasons that kids would have a credit profile attached to their name and social security number. So, it’s low-hanging fruit for folks who want to take out money in their name.

Scott: That’s interesting. So, I guess I think that the challenge is that people just aren’t really aware of what the bigger ramifications are. It seems so harmless, posting this picture from my kid’s first birthday. I’d want to share it with my friends or my family. I think people maybe are aware they’re giving up some privacy rights in doing so, but at the same time, they’re not really concerned with it in general. So, I think a question that comes up in mind is when you’ve talked to people about this, whether it’s experts on the subject, or even just in conversations in your personal life or with friends or family, what do you see people’s opinions on this being? Do you feel like there’s a strong sentiment for it, or against it, as an ambivalence? Is there like a strong sentiment you can feel about this?

Leah: I have gotten a range of responses, Scott, and I’ve been so lucky. I’ve had conversations about my bookshare at HUD…everywhere from little tiny towns in New Hampshire, where I’ve been a guest at the local library to Seattle or a town hall in L.A., or as a guest on the BBC or marketplace tab. And there’s a real range of opinion. On the question of “Is sharenting something that we should be thinking about?”, most people will say “Yes”. They will sometimes say, “I was just sort of seeing it as normal behavior, but now that you pointed out yeah, that’s the thing, to use a technical term”. But then there’s a real range of opinions. I have heard everything from everyone’s doing it, so the horse has left the barn, to continue with that New Hampshire-type metaphor. Also, “Holy moly, I am so uncomfortable now that I’m hearing this, what can I do to change it?” As with so many of our individual behaviors, in our homes and our schools and in other personal spaces, there’s just such a range of what happens.

Scott: I think I could see that for sure. And I think that’s probably the most interesting part about your book and really the whole sharenthood and sharenting message. At the end of the day, maybe you feel very strongly for, or maybe you’re very strongly against it. Regardless of your opinion, it seems to me that at least for the end consumer, utilizing these products or services, or what have you, that really, it’s just about making an informed decision, being aware of what’s occurring. As you mentioned, people are surprised to hear it. So, it’s interesting from that perspective really. As you mentioned, it’s a relatively recent phenomenon, right? I mean, social media hasn’t even existed very long. Facebook started maybe in 2005 or 2006, so all of it is relatively new. As you mentioned, the legal structures around it are relatively just beginning to form. From your perspective, where do you see all of this going? Is it a continual increase of the technology in our lives, continuing to collect information on us? Do you see a wave against it? Is there a sentiment you see occurring over time?

Leah: I think that there is increasing interest in comprehensive federal digital data, privacy protections, at least for kids. Now, I am not one to put any of my money on Washington, D.C.’s ability to solve problems in our current era, but I do see bi-partisan introduction of digital data privacy build. And that’s rare in this day and age of such divided government. So, I think folks on both sides of the aisle are talking about this book. Everywhere from California to Northern New England, people are paying a lot more attention. So, I do anticipate, Scott, that within the next 5, 10, 15 years we’ll see shifts. I think there will be shifts that may be somewhat similar to the shifts that go on in other public health-related questions.

There was certainly a time not that long ago where, hey, maybe seatbelts actually aren’t helpful and maybe cigarettes are okay. Then, obviously, there are major changes and they’re part legal or regulatory and they are part social norms and practices. So, while I certainly don’t expect digital innovation to slow down, nor as a researcher do I want it to, I think digital innovation is healthy for our economy and for the world and ultimately good for the progress of humankind. But I would like to see, in addition to folks making better informed choices, I would like to see some sort of minimal guardrails placed around what decision-makers like companies themselves, but also schools, employers, and our government, what those folks can do with pieces of digital data that relate to children and teenagers. Intimate experiences are being shared by parents or other adults without really realizing they’re doing it and not really having a meaningful opportunity to opt out of downstream use. I’d like to make sure that if I put on a fertility tracking bracelet, or if I post an adorable picture of my one year old, or even of my 16 year old, I think as a parent, and certainly from the child’s perspective, I think of the child as their own person. So, there’s some sort of assurance that information from that won’t somehow be aggregated, analyzed and acted upon to make predictions about who my child will be when they grow up.

Scott: Really interesting. It’s so hard now to look into a crystal ball and say, “Oh, this is what it will be like in 20 years”. And you bring up a great point. It’s like we, at the end of the day, really don’t know what the outcome’s going to be from the sharing of this information now. Years from now, like you said, there could be data issues or on the flip side, I think conversely maybe over time we’re able to aggregate data for better health outcomes or a better education, or something along those lines. So, just playing devil’s advocate I guess I see both sides.

Leah, you’re a law professor, you’re also a parent. So, I’m really curious to get your perspective. Specifically, for you, what’s the current state of sharenting look like, and then also, from a legal framework, what does that look like in terms of who owns the actual intellectual property of a child’s image?

Leah: So, you’re absolutely right. I come at this work from the perspective of a law professor and the parent myself. I think it’s important for us to differentiate a little bit between things that parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles, et cetera, do really, just in a personal capacity, and those parents who may be trying to monetize their children’s information. So, sometimes those folks are called influencers. Sometimes, like in my book, I call them commercial sharents. But, the legal questions get a little bit trickier. When you are talking about a parent who is making money from putting YouTube videos up or posting pictures or producing products, we start to get into labor laws apply in those circumstances. In most instances, our current labor laws aren’t really written to cover that. It’s a different question about whether they should be.

So, I think in terms of thinking about now parents in the course of ordinary life. Parents really do have, I sometimes call it super protection for the choices they make about their children’s images and data and activities. And I call it super protection because grounded in our federal and our state constitution are protected liberty interest in choosing whether and when to become a parent, and then how you parent. So, unless you’re getting into the commercial sharenting space, kids are not really going to have any legal leg to stand on for trying to get their parents to pay them royalties or to not sharent something. There is a caveat to that. Because I’m a law professor, I always have caveats. Our laws could change. So, it’s entirely possible that there could be a safeguard going forward.

Two, I never underestimate what creative and courageous litigators can come up with, if they have a specific case, but also three, there are still some very outer limits. So, while there is not any comprehensive federal law that aims to reach into the home and say to parents or grandparents or aunts and uncles, here’s what you can do with sharenting and here’s a royalty scheme you have to pay, certainly our criminal laws and other laws, general applicability are in effect. So, you can’t, heaven forbid, abuse or neglect your child, take a video, put it online and defend against a criminal action or an abuse and neglect action by saying, “Oh, I was just sharenting”. And I’m not making that up. There have been documented cases of that such as a YouTube channel that was covered by the Washington Post a few years ago in depth. But short of that, the landscape is really very open for parents.

Scott: It kind of seems like the Wild West. I guess a lot of technology falls into that umbrella and it’s in pros and cons for that. Obviously the ability to innovate, create new things outside the purview of a regulatory structure can be really advantageous for the industry in general, but at the same time we get these outcomes that were not really ever anticipated. I’m sure by any technology platform and building out whether it’s a video streaming service or what have you, that they would have those issues arising when it first came out 10 or so years ago.

Leah: Yeah, I did not mean to step on your toes. I was just going to say, I don’t think YouTube thought when they got started, what’s going to happen when a parent abuses or neglects their child and puts it online. But I do think that, especially the tech companies of more recent vintage, it should not come as a surprise that when you have open platforms for content, that you’re going to get some content that really shouldn’t be there. But, continue Scott. Sorry, I didn’t mean to cut you off.

Scott: No, not at all. I think, it’s a tough nut to crack. And I think you’re probably right. There is some credence to that. At the end of the day, there likely are going to be some bad actors. It’s like any industry, once you open the door, there’s going to be people potentially trying to take advantage of the system. But, regardless, with all of that in mind, I want to segue really quick and ask you an interesting question. When we look across the sharenting landscape, as we currently see it, I think one of the pros that people find for doing so is that it gives them the ability to share, relatively, like you mentioned intimate moments about their children and with family members or friends, or what have you.

Maybe this is more specific to social media, but sharing with family or friends, moments that, 20 years ago, they would have had a Polaroid of it and showed them whenever they saw them in person. But, maybe we live in a world, a little bit, where we’re not as localized to our family as maybe we used to be. So, the ability to share information online, can be sometimes advantageous from that perspective. One question I wanted to ask, do you find, from everyone you’ve talked to and all the research you’ve done, are there best practices for sharenting? Sharing children’s information with individuals that you specifically want to have that information online ‑- are there different routes you’ve seen or safeguards in place that can be advantageous to doing?

Leah: Absolutely. And I do agree. I think that we live in an increasingly global world where not only folks that we know already might be far away from us, but actually there could be folks out there in the world whom we don’t know in real life but whom we have a lot in common with. So, if you have a child with a disability or chronic illness, for instance, you might find a lot of solid and also valuable information from connecting with the Facebook group, let’s say for families in a similar situation. So, I certainly see the upsides of sharenting. And in terms of protective measures, I would advise a couple of things. First, never post pictures of kids of any age in any stage of undress, even if it’s completely innocent and innocuous, nice day at the beach or something like that. We are learning more and more about just how deep and how disgusting, quite frankly, the internet can be with folks who might be looking at those images or re-purposing them for truly illicit and dangerous purposes.

Next, I would say, never put your child’s full name, exact date of birth or exact location online. Those pieces of information are very valuable to potential identity thieves. You can stay connected with the people you love or the people you don’t know yet, but are looking to develop friendships with using a first name or only shooting your child where the space isn’t visible or putting a smiley face, the emoticon over your child. I would also strongly advise, not using surveillance technologies on your child. So, smartwatches that tell you where your child is, apps on a teenager’s phone that tell you where they are. I think there can sometimes be specific reasons to engage in that kind of monitoring, but in general, I’m suspicious of it because I think one, it may cut against kids and teens having to develop sort of self-sufficiency and coping skills.

Two, I think location information, as well as information about when a child is going out of bounds that you set for them, those actually can be very revealing pieces of data. And without an ironclad guarantee from a tech provider that this information is only staying between you, the parent, and us, the tech company, and is not going to a data broker, it’s not going to be used for marketing. Well, then why let a potentially large series of unknown institutions know your child’s movements or when those movements include things that you have not signed off on, because you can, geo-fence on these things and sign up for alerts that tell you when a child’s gone out of bounds. So, that’s another recommendation. Last, but certainly not least, Scott, I really advise folks to have conversations about sharenting with the other adults in the life of their children. One of the questions I’ve gotten the most, I even talked to The Wall Street Journal about it is, “What do I do about my parents?”

So, the grandparents or in-laws, or my nanny, and I would stay with a nanny or another caregiver, I would put in a written contract, what the parameters of sharenting are. If you don’t want your nanny putting pictures of your child on social media, you should talk about that upfront and have a written commitment around that. I don’t think you need to be so formal with grandparents or aunts and uncles, but I think being explicit about your expectations. It’s not too late to have that conversation. And I think that can make a world of difference.

Scott: It’s really interesting. I just try to think of my personal life and in how I would approach talking with my parents about that. And when I think about it, it’s like, oh, is that awkward? I don’t know. But at the end of the day, it’s probably just in my mind because it’s something I’ve never done. And it’s like we talked about, this is a relatively brand-new industry, brand new phenomenon. So, the social structures of how you approach it are going to seem maybe a little, I don’t want to say off-putting, but challenging, I think from the get-go. So, I think you bring up some really outstanding and interesting points to consider for listeners and, for me personally, things I had never even thought of. So, really helpful for sure.

Leah: Oh, good. Thank you so much. I appreciate that.

Scott: Anytime. So, Leah, I guess one of the questions I wanted to ask too, I think I had seen, there are sites now outside of the bigger tech companies or social media companies that have more private networks for sharing, whether it’s photos or information about children. Is that about kids, whether it’s with the grandparents or the aunts and uncles, or that sort of thing, is that something you recommend as well? Or do the same things apply whether or not it’s on a large platform versus a smaller one?

Leah: It is definitely more protective to be on a smaller platform, especially one that is being designed to be what I sometimes call parent-proof or sharent-proof. It occurs to me regularly, Scott, that we see large platforms like YouTube, for instance, offering a YouTube kids version. And, the more companies, I think that innovate to offer parent versions of their products with maybe a small subscription fee, but there is an easy to understand ironclad guarantee that the information is not being sent to a data broker or used for marketing purposes or anything that parents might want to not have happen. I think there’s potential there. So yes, I certainly think smaller is better. I think any time you’re seeing something that is curated to address these concerns, that’s likely to be better. I have a few caveats of course, cause I’m a law professor.

It’s what I do, otherwise I’d be out of a job. My first caveat is that anything that is digital can be screenshotted and reshared. If you’re talking about attacks, a post, or an email, there’s less risk of something like that happening. So, for instance, I really don’t put my kids on social media, but I have an ongoing text thread with two of my best friends from college that has a ton of pictures of my kids that is still sharenting. It’s lower risk. The risks are that they will take the picture and resend it. I have complete confidence they won’t. The risk is that my phone could be hacked into, I think that’s minimal, hopefully. Anytime there’s digital transmission, there still is some risk. And I have no particular product or service in mind, when I say this, but just to get a general law professor note, if you are looking at privacy policies and terms of use that have that double-wide truck language in it, we won’t share your information unless it’s with a third party, who’s providing a service for us or to do market research or to improve the user experience. You still aren’t going to know with a hundred percent certainty, what is happening to that information.

Scott: Leah, thank you so much for sharing a lot of really good insights from you and definitely appreciate that. Leah, thank you again so much for taking the time to sit down with me, it’s been really enlightening. Really appreciated having you on the show.

Leah: I’ve had a wonderful time talking with you and your listeners.

Scott: Thank you, again. For our listeners, the book is Sharenthood. If you’re interested in picking up a copy by Amazon, and any other reputable bookstores I have to think would carry it. Again, thank you as always for listening. If you have any suggestions or thoughts you’d like to provide us for the podcast, we really encourage interaction from you. We can be reached at [email protected]. Thanks for listening.

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