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Parents, a word of caution: Be careful while sharing pictures of children online

In this era of identity theft, digital kidnapping, cyber bullying, spear phishing, deep fakes and deepfake porn, all powered by Artificial Intelligence, Sayanika Dutta paints a frightening picture of ‘sharenting’ while giving a shout-out to the Assam Police for their proactive campaign against mindless sharing of images and information over the Internet

An advertising campaign created by a German telecommunications company recently went viral. The video sends chills down the spine of viewers as it reveals the devastating consequences of ‘sharenting’ and the power of artificial intelligence (AI) to manipulate a child’s image.  Millions of people, including parents, around the world share personal information on online and social media platforms. Parents tend to share information about their children out of love, excitement over achievement of milestones, or even as a process of documenting special moments that turn into memories. Some parents, primary caregivers and particularly influencers share every teeny-weeny bit of information about their children. Extensive digital footprint of young children is being generated everyday around the globe, without the children’s knowledge and consent. When sharing becomes excessive, it is referred to as ‘sharenting’.

Assam Police resorts to the use of AI-generated images to campaign against sharenting. (Photo: AP’s Instagram handle dated 15th July, 2023)

Shockingly, 50 per cent of photos of children innocently shared on social media end up on child pornography and child abuse forums. Research studies suggest that seeking validation, building social capital, looking to connect and normalise their life as parents / primary caregivers, showcasing even the not-so-glamorous side of parenting, etc appear to be some of the primary reasons for sharenting.

The German ad features a deepfake, adult version of a nine-year-old created using AI, based on a single photo shared by the child’s parents online. Deepfakes are images, videos or audios that have been altered and manipulated to misrepresent someone or something and present them in a way that is contrary to reality. While image photoshopping is nothing new, manipulation of original video and audio using AI to create fake video and voice skins is on the rise, as cyber criminals are increasingly resorting to this to commit cyber fraud. And it is not restricted to child content – images, audios and videos of adults can be misused as well. 

Mindless sharing of information pertaining to children is far more dangerous than it appears. Philosophically, exposing children to the world without their understanding or consent, in a sense, robs them of agency. But in a digitally networked society, the perils of sharenting are far graver. While an Instagram account of a child managed by the parent may appear cute, it not only violates a child’s right to privacy, but also exposes them to cybercrimes such as identity theft, digital kidnapping, cyber bullying, spear phishing, deep fakes and deepfake porn.

Research commissioned by tech service provider Nominet in 2015 for its online safety campaign found that on an average, parents post around 1000 photos by a child’s fifth birthday – amounting to around 200 photos per year. One in four persons confessed to never asking permission of the people in the photos before posting them. It is not just the parents who are guilty of sharing their children’s photos or videos. One in two persons have uploaded a photo of a child that was not their own. This is just the tip of the iceberg and the problems are going to escalate over time. Some studies report that by 2030, nearly two-thirds of identity theft cases affecting the young generation will be as a result of sharenting.

Vibing with popular Hindi film dialogues to create awareness on the ill-effects of sharenting. (Photo: AP’s Instagram handle dated 24th July, 2023)

In March this year, France became the first country in the world to pass a legislation prohibiting parents from posting photos of their children on social media without their consent – a significant step towards protection of children’s privacy and wellbeing. The legislation aims at making parents more responsible for the privacy rights of their children, especially those who cannot consent to their images being uploaded online.

In this regard, the Assam Police deserves special mention. It has been using social media platforms to create awareness on various social issues, including the dangers of sharenting. Their campaign dates back to 2021 when they started sharing messages about the ill-effects of the practice. In July this year, the Assam Police released a set of AI-generated images that cautioned parents on the perils of sharenting. The campaign was widely shared and re-tweeted by social media users and has earned much praise.

While the intentions behind sharing content featuring children may be harmless most of the time, the consequences can be devastating. In a surveillance society, the intention does not matter, the outcome does. Revealing private or too much information about children on social media not only violates their privacy rights, but may also lead to mental trauma and embarrassment later in their lives.

Being parents in an age augmented by technology calls for responsible social media behaviour. Before sharing content related to children, it is important to ask a few pertinent questions, such as: Is the account private? Are my social media contacts actually my friends? Do I personally know each of my social media contacts? Is it necessary to share this particular content featuring my child with my contacts? Most importantly, one needs to ask whether the content in question has the potential to harm a child now or in the future.

Let’s remember not to reduce our children to ‘content’ for a few ‘likes’ or for the need for validation. We are responsible for their well-being and owe them a safe and secure present as well as a future.

(The writer is assistant professor, Department of Mass Communication, Journalism & Media Studies, Cotton University,
Guwahati, Assam.)