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Posting images of our kids online: What are the rules?

By Lee Rose Emery, Special to CNN
  • Author: Is there an actual danger in having images of your kids online?
  • Mother: "Putting my children's photos on there is me making a decision for them"
  • Blogger and mother: "Mom blogs are Disneyland for pedophiles"
  • Parents need to be conscious of the fact that the Web is a public forum, author says
  • Family
  • Internet Privacy
  • Parenting

Editor's note: Lee Rose Emery is the writer of the award-winning blog LACityMom, tips from the carpool lane.

(CNN) -- The ability to share images and thoughts instantly is one of the marvels of the Information Age. Most of us, thanks to Facebook, have a relationship to a social network that involves a stream of conversation (albeit often banal: "I'm making chicken. ..." Really?)

But more than conversation, our profiles usually include photos and sometimes YouTube video sharing -- and not just ones of Charlie Sheen sounding off, but also home movies of little Annie's ballet recital or Grant's first ski run.

Much has been publicized about how important it is for parents to monitor their kids' use of technology, but what are the guidelines for parents of small children?

When children are not old enough to read, write, talk or press "upload," is it inappropriate for us to post their photos on the Web?

As usual, I am of two minds. I love staying connected to friends, and will occasionally post photos on Facebook, but I rarely put my kids' photos on the Web or my blog. Yet, I notice a lot of blogs seem to be nothing but family photos.

Also, I am not sure why I draw a distinction, especially when Facebook has been under scrutiny about its privacy policies. Then, I wondered, what about allowing your kids to be on TV? Or in print? Is there a difference? Is there an actual danger in having their images out there?

I decided to poll some parents to hear their views.

A 42-year-old mother of three, who wanted to preserve her family's privacy, not surprisingly does not even have a Facebook page. She said, "I feel like Facebook is so voyeuristic and putting my children's photos on there is me making a decision for them when it can affect them for the rest of their lives. I put my photos on Mobile Me and send my family the link that way."

I asked her if she felt posting photos on Facebook was a real danger to her kids, and she said she believed, "It could be, but to me, it is more of an ethical decision."

Mary Kay, mother of two, has no issue having her kids' photos on the Web. Even her personal profile photo on Facebook is a family shot. She also posts individual photos of them on her Facebook page.

When I asked her if she thinks this could pose a threat to her kids, she said, "No I don't. Maybe I am ignorant, but I don't worry about it." She also went on to say that she likes to think people are good.

Then she added, "Then again, our house did get broken into two weeks ago." (She was not relating this to her Facebook practices, but instead acknowledging she was an optimist when characterizing humanity.)

She also didn't believe it was a big deal to have her kids posted on YouTube. Michael, on the other hand, father of two, is "creeped," out by having his kids' images on Facebook or the Web, yet his wife, Stephanie, does use Facebook to keep in touch with their family miles away.

She said, "As long as you use your privacy settings, and (have) location services shut off, I don't have a huge problem with it."

I wondered what I would hear from people who were high profile or had a bit of celebrity standing. I talked to mom blogger Jessica Gottlieb, who has a large Internet following.

She never posts photos of her kids on the Web. She believes her "children are entitled to make their own first impression." Being their friend on Facebook takes this opportunity away. She also said she feels, "Mom blogs are Disneyland for pedophiles."

A mid-30s father of two is shooting a reality television show about his company and his family life. (He is not permitted to discuss specifics about the show until it airs.) When asked how he felt about having his kids be part of a TV show, he said, "At first we (he and his wife) were against it."

He noted there are some reality TV shows in which he feels the kids are exploited; cameras follow kids around all day and the kids are used as trophies.

He feels he and his wife are making a show that realistically portrays the juggle of balancing family and work, and will shed insights on that struggle. The show he is involved in is not about the kids, so he has let go of his misgivings about it.

So, some parents think it is no big deal, some feel it is dangerous. How about the experts? What's their take? I spoke with Nancy McBride, national safety director for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. She would like parents to be aware that posting their kids' photos online does pose "a potential risk."

She added she does not want people to be unduly alarmed, but urges parents, "Make sure only trusted people in their lives have access to your photos."

In a statement on the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children's resource guide, the advice is: "There is no particular way to prevent your uploaded images from being copied, saved and used by other individuals online. The only way to ensure that no one is using and saving your images is to avoid uploading them to the Internet."

I spoke with Pattie Fitzgerald, child advocate and founder of Safely Ever After, an organization in Santa Monica, California, dedicated to children's safety. I asked about Facebook, specifically.

She said, "I have not heard of any parents with young children being stalked because they saw pictures of kids on someone's Facebook page." Still, she urged caution, adding, "It is very easy for information to wind up in the wrong hands."

She said it is far more common "for tweens to create a Facebook page, lie about their age, post provocative photos and profiles that are not private, tag their names and very easily become accessible."

We all have various degrees of comfort when it comes to privacy on the Internet, as we do in the other parts of our lives. We have different lenses through which we view the world, and styles from which we parent.

Some people are afraid of flying, others of terrorist attacks. Some are able to, or chose to, live without fear.

My friend George, who is afraid of many things, is not afraid of flying. His theory is, if the plane goes down, it's not his fault.

But, if our responsibility as parents is to protect our kids, then we need to be conscious of the fact that the Web is a public forum. We need to remember that like innocence lost, once you post it, you can never get it back.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Lee Rose Emery.

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