Like most modern-day parents, you’ve likely spent more time than you’d like to admit scrolling through Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, where your feed is now filled with giddy photos of moms, dads and their adorable kids. Perhaps you’re also chuckling at funny parenting memes while keeping up with heartwarming pics of your friends and family. You also almost certainly have an account of your own where you document your little one’s unforgettable moments in regular posts.
This trend of “sharenting”—when parents use social media to share content about their kids—is commonplace. Tons of celeb moms, from Chrissy Teigen to Amy Schumer, post frequent photos of their youngsters living it up on the ’gram. It’s a regular part of existing in the post-privacy digital world. So, it’s not surprising that 90 percent of children have a social media presence before their 2nd birthday, according to the non-profit organization Child Rescue Coalition (CRC).
But one seemingly innocuous element of these posts could actually be putting your children at risk: hashtags. From the rosy-cheeked #bathtime babies doused in bubbles to the #pottytraining pics of chubby toddlers ditching their diapers, these markers have become somewhat of a map for child predators to find content.
What’s so #sketchy about hashtags?
Many of us use hashtags when we upload a cute pic; it’s a great way to emphasize a clever caption, rack up some likes and boost your online presence.
Hashtags are a type of user-generated metadata that allow people to add their posts to broader, themed groups. They help describe a photo or video and make them easier to find based on the subject matter.
On Instagram, for example, hashtags sort photos into different categories. If you’ve tagged a pic of your baby with #bathtimefuntime, clicking on that hashtag will take you to a page where you can see all the posts from people who have used the same tag. This is both the intended effect and the technology’s Achilles heel.
Anyone can create or search a hashtag—meaning pedophiles who want to look at #nakedbabies or #toddlerbikinis have access to thousands of photos of kids with just one click. Some parents even create unique hashtags for their children, so if someone takes a liking to your kid, it becomes that much easier to find photos of #raynamichelle or #jonathanlee.
Child Rescue Coalition works to protect kids from sexual abuse using their Child Protection System (CPS) technology (it provides data on where child predators are downloading and sharing explicit content). As part of their efforts, they have compiled a list of hashtags trolled by predators, including a host of common ones that parents might be using:
CRC’s founder and CEO Carly Yoost says these hashtags allow predators to access regular photos that don’t necessarily fit the criteria of child porn. But because the pics are public and easily searchable, they’re of interest to those who are sexually attracted to kids.
When hashtags lead to #offline dangers
Not only can pedophiles easily screenshot family pics or cute dress-up snaps, but when these posts have geographical tagging enabled, they become particularly unsafe, putting children in physical danger of being found offline.
Why you won’t see my kids' faces onlineLocation sharing is a chief concern for Stephen Sauer, the director of Cybertip.ca, a tip line operated by The Canadian Centre for Child Protection, a national charity for reporting online child sexual exploitation. He warns that parents need to stop posting their kids’ whereabouts.
“Let’s say you’re going to school. You’re posting images of your child that first day of school and you have the location of the school. That becomes very concerning,” he explains. “Even school uniforms, [they] make the child more identifiable.”
The Canadian Centre for Child Protection is trying to combat this online exploitation of kids in several ways. It receives reports from the public related to digital sexual child content, which it passes along to law enforcement teams, child welfare agencies and more. It also sends notices to service providers that have inappropriate material hosted on their networks.
The organization is also responsible for launching the automated system Project Arachnid in 2016, which crawls the web searching for child sex abuse material in photos, videos and chatrooms. As of August 2019, more than 85 billion images had been processed.
But it can’t catch everything, and Sauer cautions that photos that seem OK are often misused and may even be edited by predators to appear more sexual.
“One of the things we’re starting to see more of is a lot of these innocent images that appear to have been taken from different social media platforms, they’re being posted on these networks where individuals have a sexual interest in children and they can discuss their interest in that child,” he says. Parents’ geotagging adds the possibility that predators can go out and target kids they’re attracted to.
So what should you do?
Yoost doesn’t want to shame parents to stop posting pictures or using hashtags, but hopes they will pause before they post. Her advice is to think about if an image overexposes your child—with too much nudity or by revealing information about their name, their identity, where they live or which school they attend.
She wants parents to ask themselves: Why am I sharing this? Would I want someone else to share an image like this of me? And would I potentially want this available in the hands of predators that are downloading pictures from social media? Also do I want this to continue to be part of my child’s digital footprint?
One of the areas that Wilfred Laurier youth and child studies professor Danielle Law researches is how children and adults develop and socialize using technology. She says parents posting and tagging photos of their kids brings up issues of consent.
“Are parents sure they’re fully informed when they consent on behalf of their child, when it comes to posting pictures of their kid online?” she asks. “When the child starts going to grade school or high school, would that child appreciate having those photos posted?”
She explains that kids watch their parents and learn behaviour based on their actions. If a mom posts a picture of her baby in the tub or running around without clothes, “what does that teach [that kid] about the kinds of photos they can post of themselves as [a teen]?” she says.
“And if we are posting pictures of our children without consent, what does that teach your child about posting pictures of other people without their consent?”
Sauer suggests parents don’t post any nude or even semi-nude images of their kids online, especially in public forums. With Facebook in particular, he says, you won’t have control after it’s posted.
“You can remove it, but people can copy and paste that pretty easily,” he says.
Facebook’s facial recognition system DeepFace—which is not yet available in Canada, but will be soon—is used to tag photos on the platform, and it can identify faces with a startling 97 percent accuracy. If someone dangerous has a photo of your child from the site, it won’t be difficult for them to find more if they’ve been tagged.
Tips and advice
Setting your profile to private helps ensure that only the people you know are viewing your images, says Sauer.
Yoost agrees, adding that 89 percent of parents haven’t checked their privacy settings in over a year and aren’t actually sure if they’re private.
But privacy is only a cornerstone of monitoring your kid’s digital presence, and Yoost and Law both argue that it’s equally important to include your kid in the conversation about posting. They say parents and kids should decide together on what to share and set limits on social media use. Law points out that parents can do this by creating a media plan with their child.
“Having the child help with creating the rules gives them a sense of autonomy and helps them with decision making, so they’re learning how to make responsible decisions with you,” she explains.
She also suggests registering your child’s device and apps under your name and keeping track of your kid’s passwords, so that you have some control and knowledge of what’s going on.
In addition to the potential dangers, parents ultimately need to start thinking about how oversharing will affect their children now and in the future, Sauer says, because “there are obviously posts that are embarrassing or that their child may become anxious about.”
“They need to think about that before they post images online.”
Resources for parents
These sites are helpful tools for parents and kids to learn about being safe online:
- Child Rescue Coalition’s education section
- Protect Kids Online is useful for parents to learn more about online behaviour
- Kids can check out the interactive game and activity series “Zoe and Molly” to learn about internet safety