Published: The Swaddle, November 5, 2018.
Cherubic kids with angelic smiles — feel-good photos like these make for free marketing fodder and glorious social media feeds. In India, educational organizations are not mandated to take permission — and most do not attempt to do so — before posting images of students on public platforms. In other parts of the world, it is considered best practice to do so; Webwise, the Irish Internet Safety Awareness Centre, outlines a policy that includes taking written consent from parents or carers before photographs of students are published anywhere. So, why aren’t Indian schools doing it?
“No one has ever asked to not have their child’s images posted,” says an administrator at a private Mumbai school that posts students’ photos on its public social media platforms and does not have an official consent process in place. “I don’t see any risks in posting on a school’s official Facebook or Instagram account or website. Names are never used,” says the administrator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “So, I don’t think there is any difference between a photo or seeing children out on a trip wearing a school uniform. All it does is say that the child is in a particular school. People seem proud to have their child identified with a school.” The administrator went on to compare the school’s posts to parents’ posts of children on their own accounts and YouTube channels.
The difference is, of course, that parents (in most cases) are children’s legal guardians. Yet most organizations share a similar reason for not seeking parental permission: parents, they say, are pleased to have their children showcased. Chhandam Nritya Bharati, a Kathak school in Mumbai and Kolkata, asks for permission from parents only if an image highlights a specific student, not while posting group photos and videos taken of the students during class or at a performance. Says Prachi Wagh, head of marketing for the school, about its public Facebook and Instagram accounts, “No individual names or pictures are highlighted or identified by us. Parents are on our social media lists and are aware of all social media activity.”
Hackberry Kids, a children’s educational organization, does ask for consent to post photos on their public Instagram and Facebook accounts — at the end of an email sent to the parents with other program information. “Most parents do not respond to the emails and seem to be fine with their kids’ images shared on social platforms. About 15 to 20% of the parents are not comfortable,” says co-founder, Anisha Parikh, of the school’s opt-out, rather than opt-in, policy. “In today’s digital world, parents are constantly posting images of their kids online. Each parent is entitled to decide if they want to share their child’s image and should be aware of the risks involved. Today, most children have their own digital footprint, whether we like it or not.”
Taking a cue from ‘sharenting’
Statistically, more than 80% of children are said to have an online presence by the age of two — long before they are school-aged. In a world of ‘sharenting’ the average parent shares almost 1,500 images of their child online before their fifth birthday.
Chef Shilarna Vaze unveils the life of her year-old daughter, Zanskar Stella Perrin on her public social media account. When asked about the concerns over risks she says, “People are getting paranoid about social media these days, but it’s insignificant when you consider the larger picture of the safety of children from offline predators in India.”
That may not be true. In 2015, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that half of the 45 million images found on some pedophile image-sharing sites were innocent photos of children — kids on holiday, doing homework or opening Christmas presents — originally posted on social media and family blogs, according to an Australian Children’s eSafety Commissioner. “Within 10 days of being uploaded, the content had been viewed 1.7 million times and comments had been posted that explicitly sexualized the material,” said the Commissioner.
In the same Herald piece, cyber-safety expert Susan McLean said, “It does not matter how innocent the photo is, if your child has got what a predator is looking for, they will take that photo.” European police have begun posting Facebook warnings against the dangers of sharenting: The background of a child’s photo — the visible street signs, shopfronts and school logos — act as digital breadcrumbs that lead to an easily-accessible, real-world entry point into that child’s life for would-be predators.
Blogger Nidhi Mundhra blurs the face of her daughter, Aranya, on public platforms, but frequently posts about her freely on private social media accounts. She says, “I avoid putting details or clues about her school or our address. I haven’t objected to some classes putting her picture as they don’t have lots of followers.”
But privacy settings don’t guarantee control. Facebook and other related sites can share users’ personal data with advertisers — data that could include, say, the type of toy a child is playing with in a photo — while as of July 2015, Instagram’s policy retains full rights to all photos users post.
Whose decision is it?
Which leads to concerns about privacy, not just safety — concerns that relate to “identity theft (privacy risks), digital harvesting of kids’ images on predator sites (cyber-safety risks), sharing personal information about your child that should remain private (psychosocial risks), and revealing embarrassing information that may be misappropriated by others (psychological risks),” Kirsty Goodwin, researcher and author of Raising Your Child in a Digital World, wrote on her blog last year.
Today, children have a digital imprint when they are barely out of the womb. “As children’s-rights advocates, we believe that children should have a voice about what information is shared about them if possible,” says Stacey Steinberg, a legal skills professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law, in American multimedia news site, NPR.
Mundhra doesn’t believe her 6-year-old is ready to make decisions about platforms she doesn’t understand. She says, “As I don’t show her face on the public page, I don’t see why she would mind. On my private page, I don’t ask her, but she does seem annoyed when people tell her they saw her diving or cooking on Instagram.”
In the end, it may be neither schools nor parents that decide how freely children’s photos should be shared, but technology. Facial recognition technology is becoming advanced — Facebook already has this in place with the contentious DeepFace. In the future, a photo online may act as a digital password. Would you share your passwords as freely as you do — and allow others to — your child’s photos and identity? And which one should be protected the most?