Lindsey Paris and her son today (Photo courtesy of Paris)
Lindsey Paris was excited when she saw a new “like” pop up on the Facebook page that she’d set up for her blog Red Head Baby Mama. But the feeling quickly turned into shock after the Atlanta mother clicked on the name of the woman who’d given the thumbs up to a photo of Paris’ then 18-month-old son. The stranger had made the toddler’s image her homepage photo and was presenting Paris’ son as her own child. “I flew into a mother lion rage, then I burst into tears,” Paris tells Yahoo Parenting, of the 2012 incident that still has her on edge. “She was pretending that he was her own and commenting on when was he going to start teething. Her friends were saying that they loved his hair. She was treating him as her own and that was the most petrifying thing. I didn’t know people did this.”
Paris soon learned all about the relatively rare but disturbing online trend of role playing with photos of other people’s children stolen from social media accounts. “It isn’t a technical crime,” she says, so the blogger did the only thing she could. Paris messaged the woman, who turned out to be a 16 year old girl in California, and the teen apologized two days after Paris’s “forcefully polite” note asking her to take the photo down. “She said she’d always wanted a red-headed son and ‘I didn’t mean to hurt you.’”
Nashville mother Ashley B (who prefers to remain anonymous) suffered a similar experience, typically referred to as “digital kidnapping” or “virtual kidnapping” this past summer when the hobbyist photographer clicked on the Facebook update that a photo she’d taken of one of her daughters, aged 3 and 6, had been shared by someone unfamiliar. “It took me to the page of a man in China,” Ashley tells Yahoo Parenting. “The page was in Chinese and I couldn’t read any of it but I saw that he had a few thousand followers and he had shared my picture. I started scrolling and noticed he had lot of pictures of little girls. I was so scared and shocked. I mean, that share linked back to my personal page so anybody could have clicked on it to see where I lived.” Ashley immediately deleted the post, went into her privacy settings and locked them down. Until then, she admits, “I knew privacy settings were not locked down as much as they could be, but I wasn’t really concerned about it.”
But with tens of thousands of Instagram and Twitter posts hashtagged #BabyRP, for Baby Role Play, and #KidRP, Paris’s and Ashley’s stories aren’t isolated incidents. More than 1,000 people signed the 2014 Change.org petition calling for Instagram to “Put an end to the baby and child role play accounts.” And it seems that no image, or child, is off limits. Earlier this month, Texas father Caleb Kaminer shared the story of his daughter’s picture being stolen off of a social media site he’d started as a community page for families with children who have Dysphagia, a condition marked by difficulty swallowing.
Paris and Ashley, for instance, now use a privacy app KidsLink to share photos with only the friends and family whom they’ve approved to view the images and who also belong to their network in the app. “Only the people you’ve chosen can see it,” KidsLink “Chief mom officer” Titania Jordan tells Yahoo Parenting of the tool. “There’s no second wave of sharing that you’re not aware of, no strangers searching your images, no stalking.” Subscribers can also post photos to Facebook or Instagram from the app, which wipes each image clean of any location or linking metadata that would allow someone to show up in the photographer’s backyard. “It’s better to be safe than sorry,” Jordan says. “This is a happy medium between going dark and putting it all out there.”
It’s smart be cognizant of privacy measures when it comes to kids’ photos agrees Denise Lisi DeRosa, a program manager at the Family Online Safety Institute. “Lots of people don’t seem to fully understand how to use the privacy settings,” DeRosa tells Yahoo Parenting, of social media sites. “But it’s hugely important to stay up to date them.”
There is a Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act that “imposes certain requirements on operators of websites or online services directed to children under 13 years of age, and on operators of other websites or online services that have actual knowledge that they are collecting personal information online from a child under 13 years of age,” according to The Federal Trade Commission. But DeRosa points out that if you’re posting pictures of children publicly, the law can’t do what it’s intended to do. “You need to take responsibility to show and share photos as safely as possible,” she says.
Paris, for one, says she’s learned her lesson and become “very choosy” about what she shares and how since her son’s image was stolen. “Now I feel a layer of protection that I’m happy with,” says the mom. “Every parent has to decide what’s right for their family and child, but unfortunately, we have to be kind of pessimistic about it and consider what awful things can happen and how to protect ourselves.”
She even plans to talk with her little boy about online safety when he’s old enough to understand. “We will have recurring talks just like the birds-and-the-bees talk,” she says. “It will be a daily part of our lives.”