Would you share your kid's private life on a billboard? Maybe don't put it online then

Salon talks to author Leah A. Plunkett about the data corporations have on your kid and gut checks to play it safe

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published September 10, 2019 3:42PM (EDT)

Brother And Sister Looking At Their Respective Digital Devices (Getty Images/ DNY59)
Brother And Sister Looking At Their Respective Digital Devices (Getty Images/ DNY59)

We've all seen them, maybe even posted a few ourselves. The promising sonogram. The messy birthday cake devouring. The meltdown in the Target aisle. The frolicking at the beach. The school acceptance letters. The prom photo that elicits a few uncomfortable, "Wow, she's gorgeous!" replies from the neighbors. The online artifacts of an entire generation of children whose lives, even the most personal moments of them, are in the public domain, and who have little to no say about it.

Author Leah A. Plunkett isn't here to tell you to toss out your Alexa or delete your Instagram account. But in her illuminating and common sense new book "Sharenthood: Why We Should Think before We Talk about Our Kids Online," the author reveals the alarming ways your family's data can be used and distributed, and advocates for a more thoughtful approach to how we parent your digital-era offspring.

Plunkett spoke to Salon recently from her home in New Hampshire, where she's a University of New Hampshire School of Law faculty member, about finding our own "gut checks" and raising kids to be savvy Internet citizens.

Millennials are starting to have kids, but every parent before them grew up in a world where we didn't have any of this technology. We didn't have social media. Even though we've been living with it for a long time, there is still a degree of naiveté and definitely a lack of identification with the world we're bringing our children into. We start from almost the moment of conception, putting our children's lives online. Where is that data is potentially really going?

That data is potentially going everywhere. I don't mean that answer to be flippant, I mean that answer to be realistic. When we are putting digital data out into the world — whether it is through social media or a cloud device in our homes like an Alexa or a smart thermostat or a wearable device like a fitness tracker or a fertility bracelet or app — we are giving sensitive data about our children even before they're born to a third party company that has its own relationships with other vendors who are supplying it services or to whom they might supply data down the road.

In certain, very specific sectors, there are laws in place that would prevent re-sharing. All of these companies are required to have terms of use and privacy policies and other obligations that they put on themselves that can be enforced by law. But realistically, they often have terms there that say "subject to change at any time." 

We really do not know in any way that offers us security about how seemingly disparate or innocuous data points about our children — their conception, gestation or life — will be used now or later to make predictions about them, to try to target marketing or advertising to them, to try to help gatekeepers make decisions about what opportunities to offer them. We have really opened up a space for tech vendors to go where even the United States Supreme Court has feared to tread. The United States Supreme Court has said it's not the court's role to determine when life begins. Tech vendors are offering us products like fertility bracelets or apps to try to help us predict just that. We don't know, as really the first generation of parents using those, how that data could be shared, aggregated, analyzed and applied throughout the course of our perhaps unborn children's lives.

The other side of it is, we all do it anyway. I read your book and thought, "Well, of course all my photos are on Shutterfly." Even if you are a cautious parent, what do you do? I can't live in a cave. I can't just get a landline and go back to maps on paper. How do we navigate in a way that feels like we are protective of our kids but also realistic?

I think "navigate" is the right term. I really encourage folks to think about having a compass that guides their decision-making both individually and also for what they advocate for at the level of institutions, be they companies or legislators or regulators. The four directions on the compass are play, forget, connect and respect.

We need to be making decisions as parents that protect our children's space to play. I don't mean necessarily play hopscotch, I mean thinking about childhood and also adolescence as protected spaces to make mischief, to make mistakes and to grow up the better for that.

An example of how I might apply this principle as a parent is that I'm really protective of play. I think my child should have a place to explore. I am likely to avoid using surveillance and tracking technology for my children because I do believe that those are forms of "sharenting," a parent making a decision to share private data about a child through a digital technology. I'm not going to use those technologies because I am placing a premium on that cardinal direction of play. I would rather work with my child so that he or she understands what my expectations are and how to stay safe and avoid having a third party company have access to information about my child potentially doing dangerous or foolish things.

Forget is how we individually advocate for institutional change. We as parents can work together to say to a tech company, "I want you to offer an auto-forget setting on your social media platform so that without my having to remember to do it in one month's time, one year's time, five years time, you are going to take down the posts and delete that data permanently from whatever records you're keeping." That won't go all the way there because of course during the time it's up it can be screen-shotted; it can be saved. Data doesn't ever really disappear. But it's at least a bit of a measure towards keeping what we sharent about our kids contemporaneous. A child who's four may not mind the video we post of them singing, but might really care about it when they're 14, and we don't have to remember as parents to find it and take it down.

We are paying for services, even seemingly free or low-cost services, with data. When we sharent, we're paying for them with our children's data. Just ask ourselves if it's worth it to us to have this service or this platform at this price of privacy. Maybe sometimes it is. One thing people do that's a very thoughtful and very legitimate trade-off is to say, "I'm the parent of a child with a disability or a chronic illness. I am going to use Facebook or Twitter or another seemingly free social media platform and I'm going to pay for my use of it by sharing data about my child's condition. I'm going to do that because I think that there are larger goals around access to healthcare or clinical medical trials that are more important than privacy." I think parents absolutely should be empowered to make that decision. 

When it comes to connect, this asks us to say as parents, teachers and other caregivers, "Are we choosing to use this digital technology in a way that is ultimately fostering human-facing connections with our child, now or in the future?" To go back to your example of using Shutterfly for photos, it's unrealistic to think that we're going to go back to good old-fashioned film to make photo albums. Do I think it's legitimate as a parent to say if I want there to be a photo album in ten years, I'm going to use Shutterfly? Absolutely. But, do I think that a parent who's focused on human-facing connection would also be justified in posting, even with the best of intentions, lots of pictures of kids in bathing suits on a social media site without really strict privacy controls, or even with strict privacy controls? I might be less inclined to see the value, because we do know that unfortunately there are many people out there who are acting in bad faith around photos like that.

One thought experiment I sometimes do just for myself as a gut check is, would I have found it weird or creepy as a kid or a preteen if my parents had shared this piece of information about me on a billboard in the center of my town, or taken out an ad in the local newspaper, or even in the school newspaper? If the answer's yes, if you would have found it weird as a kid if your parents had taken out an ad in the local paper to congratulate you on your first kiss or getting your first period, don't put it online.

From the time they were young, I've tried to tell my kids that you as children are entitled to privacy, you are entitled to bodily autonomy and you are entitled to respect. You need to know that so that by the time you're 16 these are not new concepts for you. And if you don't want me talking about you on my Twitter feed, then I won't talk about you on my Twitter feed.

You hit upon something that's so important. The law does not give kids any ability to consent or not consent to sharenting, unless it's criminal or otherwise prohibited by a law of general applicability. It's criminal to make pornography of your child. It would be criminal to abuse or neglect your child and put pictures of that online. But could I go to my Facebook account right now and write a minute-by-minute account of my morning and getting my children dressed and ready for school and what struggles I had and what successes I had? Absolutely, and the law does not care if my children are comfortable with that or not comfortable with that.

We as parents have to be modeling digital citizenship and taking what seem like basic principles from our brick and mortar lives and applying them visibly and regularly to digital life. Because we don't experience digital technology as being outside of our homes or daily life, we forget that it is letting in not just the audience we may be trying to reach, but people who may be up to no good  hackers, or the companies that are getting data about us who may re-sell it to data brokers, or any one of the number of other uses that could arise that we as parents need to realize. We're using a smart refrigerator because it helps us, but that is not a passive object. That is what some people call an enchanted object. And in the same way enchanted objects in fairy tales can be a little risky, that smart fridge can be a little risky too if it's hacked or if the information is sold to a data broker or otherwise repurposed.

So much is out of our hands, but it's important to remember that there is so much that is in our hands. What are some foundations that we can arm our children with going out into the world? They're getting phones in their hands and devices in their hands younger and younger and younger. They are becoming digital citizens on their own and making their own choices younger and younger and younger.

You can talk to them about consent and you can tell them not to post something about somebody else unless you have asked them and gotten their permission. In the same way, don't let anyone post something about you that you don't want shared. Ask questions if you see someone getting out a cell phone. And if you're not comfortable asking questions from that person, find a trusted adult who can help you ask those questions. Always know who the other people are that you're interacting with online or through an app. Don't assume that just because somebody is reaching out to you through a device in your hand that they know you or can be trusted.

I would go so far as to say, assume that data that you share digitally can go places that you don't expect it to go. That doesn't mean never get a fitness tracking device, but does it mean don't wear that fitness tracking device 24/7. Don't connect to the app that's associated with that fitness tracking device that is then going to broadcast your route. Those are nuances that really matter. Remind kids who are under 13 that for most products they will interact with, the COPPA, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, does mean that legally these providers are supposed to be getting informed parental consent for the child's use. That's not to scare a child but really to help them understand the requirement that companies be responsible too.

I really do think that we're at a point where we need a new comprehensive federal law that limits the ability of tech companies to collect, use or re-share, children's private data and that allows it only to be collected, used or re-shared with specific consent, either by the child themself if they're 16 or over, or by the parent. And once a child reaches the age of 18, they should have a right to access from tech vendors what data has been collected about them and they should be able to request deletion or correction of data that companies have about them.

One of the things that I find so interesting is that if parents were peers, if they were classmates instead of parents, behavior like what was covered in that "Stop Posting Your Child's Tantrum on Instagram" piece would actually violate the school anti-bullying laws in a lot of states. It is so disconcerting to me on a very deep level that not only do we not prohibit but we in fact often embrace it, whether through likes or other forms of affirmation. We embrace what really is a form of parental bullying, even if parents don't mean it to come out that way.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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