Editor’s Note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She’s a mom of two girls and lives in Manhattan. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.
Parents face tough decision on whether to share about their kids online
"BatDad" never expected his videos would go viral and be seen by millions
Experts say parents should review privacy settings on any service they use
Social media training is now a part of parenting, some moms say
True confession. On the first day of school this year, I got swept up in all the back-to-school cuteness and violated my family’s policy of not sharing pictures and videos of our girls online.
I couldn’t resist. I had to post one picture on Facebook, but I figured a shot of my daughters from behind carrying backpacks nearly their size would be OK.
That decision – to share or not to share – is a bit of a conundrum for anyone with kids. On the one hand, many parents want their friends and family, and sometimes a larger audience, to see how fabulous their kids are. On the other hand, there are concerns about a child’s privacy and safety online.
There is always that chance, as remote as it might seem, that what you post will be seen by millions.
That’s what happened to Blake Wilson, a father of four in Roswell, Georgia, who, on a whim, bought a “Batman” mask, and started creating hilarious Vine videos, where he appears as “BatDad,” stepping in to solve modern parenting woes.
“It was a total fluke,” said Wilson from his home, where he has been fielding interview requests from outlets around the world. “I wasn’t thinking about going viral.”
Now that he has – with millions of hits on YouTube and national exposure including on the “TODAY” show – I wondered if Wilson had any second thoughts about sharing videos of his children that have now been seen worldwide.
“Not yet because I don’t think any of it’s inappropriate,” said Wilson, who added that he and his wife scrutinize every Vine video they make before posting. “If I were doing something that was embarrassing (the kids) and making them feel bad and I put it on the Internet, then yeah, I would feel pretty bad about myself and regret doing that. But I really don’t think that I’ve done anything to put them in any kind of future harm or jeopardy at this point and I don’t plan on it, either.”
David DeVore posted a video in 2009 of his son, also named David, who was still woozy after dental surgery. The video has now been seen more than 121 million times.
“That first week, it was kind of shocking and we were trying to navigate, ‘Well, what is going on here? Are they criticizing David, or are they making fun of him?’ ” DeVore said, recalling the moment the video became a sensation. “That was really the only time we thought ‘Well, maybe we should take it down’ … not realizing like we do now that once it’s out, it’s kind of out.”
In conversations with parents across the country, it’s clear how seriously families like Wilson’s and DeVore’s take the issue of what they share about their children, and how every household has its own set of rules about what’s acceptable and what’s not.
A fine line not to cross
Sharon Rowley, founder of the blog Mom of 6, said her children may appear in some pictures and videos on her blog, but she said she’ll never share anything about their personal lives.
“I don’t feel that their personal life is really my story to tell,” said Rowley, who said she would never post anything controversial about her kids. “Nothing ever that I think they would cringe and say, ‘Why would you tell people that?’ You are not talking to your neighbor across the fence. You are talking to strangers when you write about it like that.”
Emily, a blogger in coastal North Carolina who only wanted to use her first name, said she tries to paint a really “abstract” picture of her 18-month-old online, which means putting up pictures on her blog that obscure her daughter’s face a bit and being cautious about the stories she tells.
“When I write about her, I like to make sure that I don’t share any details that she’ll later on take offense at because she’s a person and I think that that’s something I have to remember a lot,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t want her to feel hindered by the way I portrayed her on the Internet when she was a child.”
No longer sharing
Jennifer Bosse, who blogs about motherhood and marriage, shares pictures and videos of her two boys mostly on Facebook because her family lives far away. “I really try to make sure that the security on … my Facebook is down (pat). I know it’s not going to be foolproof but I do take certain precautions to protect their privacy as well as my own,” she added. “I try to keep the number of friends that I have to a minimum.”
Bosse said she has always been choosy about what photos of her children she shares on her blog, but said she became even more selective after reading a story on BlogHer about a blogger who shared photos of her children during potty training. She later found out the photos were used on a child pornography site.
“It just got me really, really nervous because I had already posted all these pictures and granted they’re just regular pictures that you would see around my house, kids smiling, kids playing on bikes,” Bosse said. “I really do try to watch everything that I put out there for the fear that it might end up in the wrong hands.”
Parents should definitely consider the “icky factor,” according to Larry Magid, co-director of ConnectSafely.org and founder of SafeKids.com, both nonprofit Internet safety organizations. He spoke of a friend who posts pictures of her 3-year-old running around in her underwear.
“We have pictures like that of our own children but we don’t post them on the Internet for the public to look at because even though they are taken with the best intentions and shared with the best intentions, there are creeps out there who are going to get the wrong idea,” he said.
Never too early to teach the kids
Nicole Feliciano, founder and editor of the style blog Mom Trends, said she sticks out from a lot of her fellow bloggers because she never shares photos and videos of her girls, ages 5 and 8. As her older daughter starts to do more things online, Feliciano has been using social media to help explain why she and her husband are so adamant that the children not be showcased on her site.
“I show her how a screenshot works,” Feliciano said. “I said, ‘Let’s show this picture up on Mom Trends and then I’m going to take the screenshot. If I take this post down, this screenshot still exists and I can send it to all of my friends, and I can put it up on Twitter. I can put it on Facebook and even though you’ve deleted it, it still exists.’ “
“We’re trying to use social media education for them as well … so they know about permanence and about being very responsible with every image that you put up.”
Online ‘eraser’ button
The lives of modern parents are more complicated by having to add social media training to the list of things we need to do to keep our children safe, Feliciano said.
So what’s a parent to do?
Magid, the Internet safety expert, said parents should check their privacy settings for any online service they use to make sure something they only want to share with friends is not being seen by the general public. He also said parents need to keep reiterating one message to their kids: “Not to put anything online that you wouldn’t want your grandmother or future love interest or future employer (or a future college administrator) to know.”
But beyond that, he said parents can’t really rely on themselves, software companies or even the government to keep children safe online.
For instance, a new California law went into effect last week, the first law of its kind in the nation, that will allow kids under 18 to have the power to delete something they posted.
The problem, said Magid and other parents, is that if someone shares something your child posted that your child now wants to delete, your kid is out of luck. Also, the new law doesn’t protect childlren from any photos or posts that their friends or enemies post about them.
“The danger is not even so much what you’ve taken and shown the world, but it’s what other people have tagged you in or stupid things you did (and) you didn’t even know anyone had a camera,” Rowley said. “So it really comes down to parents. We really have to teach morals, ethics, how to live your life with integrity.”
Emily, the mom and blogger from North Carolina, put it another way.
“You have to parent online,” she said. “You have to sit down with your kids and explain what they’re getting into.”