When kids head back to school, parents flock to social media to proudly post first-day-of-school photos. Some are simply cute portraits showing off big smiles and new backpacks. However, parents are increasingly asking their children to hold signs showing the child's name, grade, school, teacher and hobbies.
While these signs are a great way to capture a snapshot of the upcoming school year, they also reveal a lot of personal information that, experts warn, may expose children to identity theft, allow predators to find them and result in digital kidnapping, which involves stealing a child's image to create fake profiles or compromising artificial intelligence photos.
Ahead, digital safety experts share what parents should bear in mind before they post something to social media. What's safe to share, and what details should be left out? Read on to learn more.
What experts say about kids' digital privacy
"Children's safety and privacy are paramount. Oversharing, or ‘sharenting,’ can expose them to potential risks," Yaron Litwin, chief marketing officer for the parental control app Canopy, tells Yahoo Life. Litwin adds that "protecting their digital footprint early on sets a precedent for responsible online behavior in the future, and avoids potential resentment towards the parent later in life."
Adds Iskander Sanchez-Rola, director of privacy innovation at Norton: "What may look like a harmless and safe photo to the average person might be a cybercriminal's pot of gold."
According to Maria-Kristina Hayden, a cybersecurity specialist at Outfoxm, "There is no one-size-fits-all" approach to posting family news on Instagram.
"The topic of social media sharing should be thought of as a sliding scale of safety, privacy and risk," she says. "Every family has a different tolerance and will find they are comfortable." That said, Hayden does recommend that parents never post a child's birth date, home address, school name, teacher's name, schedule, medical information, online usernames or whereabouts in real time.
Bearing that in mind, what's the best way to handle important family milestones?
Parents should be cautious about what they post about their child starting on day one. When crafting an online birth announcement, Litwin says, new parents should "avoid sharing a full name, birth date and name of the hospital, as these can be used for identity theft or other malicious purposes," even years later.
On that note, Ray Walsh, a digital privacy expert at ProPrivacy, advises parents to also avoid sharing "private documents, passports, birth certificates or any other document that reveals personally identifiable data." According to Walsh, "Personally identifiable data such as birth dates and full names will stay with your child for life and can potentially be used to engage in identity fraud and other criminal activities long into the future." In other words, parents can congratulate their teen on getting their driver's license, but there's no need to post a photo of the physical license on social media.
Sharing back-to-school photos is a cherished tradition for many families. While any photo posted on social media leaves a digital footprint, there are ways to share photos more safely. "Avoid sharing specific details like the name of the child's school or teacher's name. Sharing their grade or age is also problematic," Litwin says.
When parents share back-to-school information, Litwin encourages them to follow this rule: "If it can be used to locate, identify or predict a child's routine, it's better kept private." Parents should also avoid tagging their child's school — or even the city or state in which they live — in any posts.
Shelley Pasnik, director of the Center for Children and Technology at the Education Development Center, advises parents to "go for sentiment, not specifics." Parents can convey their excitement or nerves about their kid heading back to school, but there's "no need to name names when a simple 'my kiddo' or 'our school' will do," she says.
It's natural for parents to want to shout from the rooftops that their kid is the star forward on their school's basketball team or was cast in the local Nutcracker production. But again, experts caution about broadcasting specific details online. Instead of sharing information about the team name, time and location of any events, etc., try to keep things general. For example, posting something along the lines of "My daughter's field hockey team won their tournament today!" is vague but still conveys pride.
Hayden adds that parents should be particularly careful about posting details on activities their kids will be participating in without parental supervision, such as playing in an away soccer game or heading off to summer camp.
Hayden also cautions parents to be aware of what's visible in photos they're sharing. "Avoid including background items in your photos that may give too much away," such as part of your home, address number, license plate or sign showing a school's name. Walsh cautions that showing a child in a school or team uniform could also be used to find a child's physical location.
Litwin elaborates that even photos with completely plain backgrounds can be used to track a child's location. "Photos can contain embedded metadata known as EXIF data, which may reveal the location of where the photo was taken, among other details," he explains. Hayden urges parents to "turn off location services for your phone's camera. This will turn off geotagging for all apps at once, which is what you want." Parents should also "resist the urge to manually type in precise locations when apps ask you to tag photos," she adds.
If parents want to share information about other events like concerts, sporting events, birthday parties or playdates, Walsh tells Yahoo Life that "it is vital that they do so the day after the event so that potential cyberstalkers cannot rush to the location in question to find them." He adds, "Posting the day after an event is just as engaging but vastly safer."
How can parents share safely?
As tempting as it is to want to share your child's accomplishments with the world, Litwin says that "private, encrypted platforms might be safer for direct sharing with trusted friends and family."
Sanchez-Rola tells Yahoo Life that "WhatsApp, Apple iMessages, Signal and, most recently, Google Messages all use end-to-end decryption by default. This means that only you and the person you're communicating with can read or see what is sent in your conversation." By contrast, "messages between iPhone and Android users lack this encryption," he adds, "meaning your mobile carrier, government authorities and hackers could have access to your information."
What if your Instagram or Facebook accounts have strict privacy settings, or you limit personal content to a "close friends" list? Litwin notes that those settings "can offer more control, but it's important to regularly review and update that list." Walsh advises parents to "use these platforms responsibly and leverage all the available privacy features to lock down their circle and prevent personal data from being published publicly."
What if it's the kids posting online?
Eventually, many kids will start posting their own back-to-school photos and content. Hayden encourages parents to explain to their children that their social media presence is a "public billboard about their life" and that "colleges and employers will be checking out their pages." Children should think about whether they would be proud to show a future employer or college admissions officer what they are about to post. "That should be the guiding light," she says.
Litwin adds that parents should encourage children to "think before they post, consider the implications and always prioritize safety and privacy over likes or online engagement."
Experts say parents have an opportunity to model good social media boundaries and give their kids a level of digital protection before they themselves go online. "The information that is available about any given child is largely the result of a parent's doing," Pasnik says. "Because digital information can persist for many years, and it's the child who must contend with the ongoing availability of their data, taking a cautious, long-view approach to sharing can be helpful to everyone."
Although it's possible to make "sharenting" safer, it's not possible to post anything online completely risk-free. Hayden cautions that "the more that is shared on the internet, the higher the risk," noting that some sites or apps may assure users that their content is private or temporary, while retaining the posts on their servers, or that recipients of messages could "screenshot or distribute anything they see online."
Ultimately, she says, "it's imperative" that parents understand that "the internet is forever."
This article was originally published on Aug. 28, 2023 and has been updated.