It's fall, and if your family (and your refrigerator) is anything like mine, fall means back to routines, and checklists to keep you organized.
Backpacks packed? Check.
Pantry filled with lunch snacks for the week? Check.
Extracurricular activity scheduled for this month? Check.
It's also time to fill out forms, so many, many forms, during those initial weeks of the new school year.
Most require little of us other than a pen, our smartphone contacts and time — time that's usually found somewhere between pouring milk into cereal bowls and making sure everyone has (somewhat clean) socks.
As you go through your forms this year, keep an eye out for the ones asking for permission to share your kids' pictures, assignments and art online. Until your children start being able to make these choices on their own, you should be in control of your child's digital footprint. While we may wish the law protected families from others posting about them without consent, there are gray areas.
Be happy the school is reaching out for permission. But know that not everyone who shares online will ask first to make sure it's okay. And while you might be able to get posts you don't approve of taken down, by the time you find out they exist and make the request, the damage may already be done. If you're lucky, it's nothing more than an unflattering image flashing across your friends' social media feeds. But there is a chance that the oversharing could cause harm to someone's reputation, finances or, in a worst-case (but rare) scenario, physical self. That possibility shouldn't be overlooked.
Our social media accounts offer us ways to do privacy checkups for our own online lives, but there aren't many resources out there to help us do privacy checkups on behalf of our kids. Here's a checklist to help you better manage your child's online presence.
- Tell friends and family about your privacy wishes. Most of the people in our lives won't intrude on our digital footprints maliciously. Instead, most do so because they have not considered the importance of privacy. Start the conversation, and set parameters around what others can share about your family. More often than not, your friends and family will happily comply with your wishes.
- Be sure your social media settings require you to approve posts when you've been tagged. This way, in many instances, you can be the first to see when your child's image is being shared online. If you don't approve of the picture, untag yourself or contact the person sharing the image and ask them to take it down.
- Set up Google alerts to let you know if your child's name is included in anything published online. This free and easy service will alert you any time the child's name is shared in a news article or public social media post. Google isn't the only service that does this. Talkwalker and Mention are two other platforms with similar offerings. It isn't inherently "good" or "bad" for your child to have an online presence, but it is smart to know all the places where your child's name is shared and in what context.
- When signing kids up for activities, let the school know of your sharing preferences, and ask whether they have a policy in place that protects your wishes. If the school does not have a policy, offer to help create one. Other parents will thank you. A simple email to teachers and coaches can get the conversation started. In schools, you could ask the parent-teacher association to take up the issue on behalf of all the students. Or, if your child is active in a sport, ask the coaches or boosters to look into the organization's policies.
- Research the web-based systems your child's school uses in the classroom. Insist that the school share information about these programs with all parents, and ask for a meeting with not only the school but the third-party provider if you have questions. Don't assume the school will protect your child's privacy. There are many programs that enhance the learning environment, but some may put your child's privacy at risk. Ask your child's school to scrutinize programs carefully (and ask for parent input) before adopting them into the classroom. One popular app schools use is ClassDojo, which has a great track record and has been used successfully in my children's classrooms. But no matter how other parents feel about a third-party platform in the classroom, do your homework and be sure you understand how the teacher will use it and what will happen with your child's personal information after the school year ends.
- When someone does share an image of you or your child without asking, consider the intent. Was it done to harm you or out of ignorance? If it was ignorance, use it as a learning opportunity for the other person. Share why you are concerned. Instead of assuming your input won't change their actions in the future, consider that they hadn't even thought about the issue and might appreciate your perspective.
As our kids grow up on our social media feeds, we are also growing and learning as adults through social media's ever-present lens. Whether you print this checklist out and post in on your fridge or keep it in the back of your mind to help steer you when you're on the go, your kids will one day thank you for protecting their online identity.
Editor's note: This essay should not be considered legal advice. Please consult an attorney if you have specific questions or concerns.
Stacey Steinberg is a legal skills professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law, where she supervises the Gator TeamChild Juvenile Law Clinic. Portions of this essay are excerpts from her forthcoming book, "Growing Up Shared," which will be published in 2020 by Sourcebooks.