Warnings Issued Regarding the Damaging Cost of Excessive Online Sharing amongst Parents

Taryn Hinton, legal adviser and co-ordinator of Media Monitoring Africa’s ‘Reporting on Children in the Media’ course, has become the latest figure to join the chorus of voices preaching warnings to parents regarding what they choose to share online, specifically where their children are involved. It may seem like a relatively-minor issue, but the rise of ‘Sharenting’, as the phenomenon has become known, carries with it some potentially damaging ramifications for the future.

“If you wouldn’t put it up on a billboard on the N1 or M3, don’t put it up on social media,” warns Hinton. “People seem to think there’s a different set of rules that apply online. If you defame someone online, it’s the same as in print but you are more likely to reach a far broader audience on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. There’s no such thing as anonymity - you’re always able to be tracked. Once it’s out there, it’s been seen and it can be shared, reposted or screen-grabbed.”

Hinton is far from alone in her concerns as Simon Colman, executive head of digital distribution at SHA Specialist Underwriters, has expressed a similar worry. He warns that, “Increased usage of social media platforms on mobile phones has further increased the ease of with which people can post to any social media platform. It simply takes one, usually unintentionally, offensive post to spark an outrage on social media platforms, which can lead to major defamation or invasion of privacy legal actions.

“Just because you’ve restricted access to friends and family doesn’t mean they won’t pass on the info without permission,” he continues. “If it’s private, don’t post it.”

With 16 million people using Facebook, 7.7 million on Twitter and 6.1 million on LinkedIn in South Africa lone - according to the Ornico SA Social Media Landscape report for 2018 - that makes for a lot of vulnerable people.

The consequences of these unintentionally-offensive posts can be devastating for both the person posting and the one posted about, and the problem is certainly not restricted to South Africa. One notable example involves a teen in Austria who just last year sued her parents as a result of them posting hordes of images to Facebook without her consent, which she found to be humiliating due to their nature (the pictures included images of nappy-changing and potty-training). The parents refused to take the pictures down as they believed they had every right to post the pictures which they had taken, even after the teen in question outright requested the photographs’ removal from the platform.

The unnamed teen told Austrian publication The Local, “They knew no shame and no limit - and didn’t care whether it was a picture of me sitting on the toilet or lying naked in my cot - every stage was photographed and made public.”

Authorities in France have gone so far as to make it illegal to post pictures of children online by way of strict privacy laws, with parents facing heavy fines and a year’s jail time for posting intimate pictures of their children without permission. Investigations conducted in America have also found evidence of the issue, with one recent study from the University of Michigan finding that children aged 10 to 17 were “really concerned” about how freely their parents shared details of their lives.

“It’s been described as a digital tattoo,” says Simon Colman. “(Think about the) long-term impact of a social media reputation. Kids are posting inappropriate content of themselves, not considering the ramifications on future relationships, job applications etc.”

Ms Hinton concluded with a stark warning: “Just because it’s true, doesn’t make it not defamatory. You’re also putting your kids at risk. People don’t realise that you can access the photo and find its location - you’re putting them at physical risk. If you put anything online that identifies them, you put them at risk from paedophiles.

“Parents are not always educated. They don’t realise their children could access their profiles etc. If a parent is sharing that their kids are drinking, bunking or doing something else they shouldn’t, you don’t know who is seeing it and they could be getting into trouble at school. There’s no anonymity. It can be linked to you. Once it starts, it’s hard to stop.”

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