Feature

Many parents worry about whether their children are using the internet safely. But some experts suggest that parents should think harder about their own online habits — especially when it comes to their children's privacy.

"Media literacy is crucial, for kids and parents," says Mary Alvord, PhD, a psychologist in Rockville, Maryland, and past president of APA Div. 46 (Society for Media Psychology and Technology).

More than 90 percent of children in the United States have a digital presence before their second birthday, according to a 2010 study by internet security firm AVG. Such posts run the gamut from birth announcements on Facebook to detailed descriptions of children's behavior problems on parenting blogs.

While most posts are probably harmless, psychologists point out, others have the potential for harm. Posting personal details could put a child at risk of identity theft or make it possible such information could wind up in the hands of someone with unscrupulous motives, says Alvord.

Less clear, but still concerning, is how parental oversharing might interfere with a child's sense of privacy and trust. "It can come back for kids to really be resentful of what their parents posted," Alvord notes.

So far, there's little research to suggest how a parent's Facebook updates or Twitter posts might affect a child's well-being, says Sarita Schoenebeck, PhD, an assistant professor in the School of Information at the University of Michigan. But her work suggests kids are wary of parental posting. She and her colleagues surveyed 10- to 17-year-olds and their families and found twice as many children as parents expressed concern about parents' sharing personal information about them on social media (Association for Computing Machinery, 2016).

"Kids would like parents to ask permission more often than parents think they should," Schoenebeck says.

In a follow-up study to be presented later this year at the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Schoenebeck found kids were uncomfortable with parents sharing embarrassing stories or photos, personal information or details about friends and significant others. In general, children were less bothered when parents posted about children's achievements, sports and hobbies and special occasions such as holiday or vacation photos. "Kids want more agency over what kind of content is shared," she says.

With that in mind, clinicians can share some common-sense rules of thumb to help their clients think before they post.

  • Consider all posts to be public posts. Don't assume a post or picture is private just because you've tightened up your privacy settings, says James C. Kaufman, PhD, an educational psychologist at the University of Connecticut and head of the Div. 46 Media Watch Committee. You never know who might end up seeing it—including future employers.
  • Take the long view. The information you post will probably still be around in 10 or 15 years, says Schoenebeck. "Parents should be conscientious about who will see it in the future and how the child might feel about it."
  • Don't share online what you wouldn't tell a crowd. "I don't post anything I wouldn't print on a T-shirt and wear for the day," Kaufman says.
  • Respect the child's wishes. Some children are naturally very private, and others less so. Once a child is old enough to understand social media — certainly by age 9 or 10, says Alvord, and for some kids even earlier — he or she should have a say in what gets posted, including veto power over any posts.
  • Get a second opinion. Before sharing personal stories about children, Alvord recommends parents get some perspective from another adult family member.
  • Communicate your expectations. Once parents have established some guidelines for sharing online, they should communicate them to others who might post about the kids, including grandparents and babysitters.
  • Don't shun technology. Parents shouldn't give up on social media, says Schoenebeck, since they often benefit from the feedback and support they get from sharing online. And there can be harm in being too private, Kaufman says. When parents behave as though they fear social media, it can send an unhelpful message to children that the world is a scary place.
  • Read up. There are a lot of great resources to help parents and others become media literate, Alvord says. She recommends visiting the Family Online Safety Institute as one source to stay on top of the ever-changing digital landscape.

Learn more about the work of APA Div. 46 (Society for Media Psychology and Technology).