Ask an Ethicist: Does posting photos of my kids online violate their privacy?

In partnership with the Rock Ethics Institute, Penn State Today’s feature column, "Ask an Ethicist," aims to shed light on ethical questions from our readers. Each article in this column will feature a different ethical question answered by a Penn State ethicist. We invite you to ask a question by filling out and submitting this form. An archive of the columns can be found on the Rock Ethics Institute website.

Question: I’m a young parent who is active on social media. I want to post pictures of my kids on apps like Facebook and Instagram, so friends and family who don’t live nearby can see them. But I understand that information posted about us online can trail after us long after it’s posted, and I don’t want to do anything to hurt my kids’ future online identities. Will posting photos of my kids online undermine their privacy as adults?

An ethicist responds: Social media has become an integral part of many of our lives. We open Facebook and Instagram when we wake up in the morning, and we check them one last time before we go to sleep. These services are important to us, because they connect us with others. They let us know what our siblings in another state are up to and how our college friends are doing in their careers. Those of us who share information about ourselves on social media tend to do so with zeal — posting about everything from the trivial to the momentous. And we tend, often without thinking about it, to post information about other people. We post pictures of the people we’re hanging out with and tag them in posts we think they’ll like.

This raises privacy issues. Once online, photos and other information are difficult, if not impossible, to delete. And that information is often accessible to parties that make decisions about us. Loan officers, college admissions committees, and potential employers are just a few of the people who might be interested in it. When the people we post information about are adults, navigating privacy issues isn’t too difficult. We can simply ask our friends if they’re okay with us posting information about them online. When we post information about children, however, things get a bit trickier.

Parents often want to share the joys and hardships of parenting with their social media communities. They share pictures of their babies dressed up like dolls and videos of their older ones performing in school plays. They post updates about their progress in school, and news of illness and recovery. As with adults, publishing information about kids carries certain risks. Some are relatively minor — that video of your 4th grader singing in the school play could totally embarrass him when he gets to middle school. Others are more severe. If you aren’t careful with your privacy settings, those posts about your child’s struggles with asthma could one day end up in the hands of their health insurer. Your complaints that they don’t take school seriously could end up in the hands of potential employers. Data scientists are able to extrapolate all sorts of things from seemingly innocuous information about us. And what people are like as children is predictive of what they’ll be like as adults.

At the same time, we shouldn’t get overly paranoid. Parenting is full of risks, and one thing parents are responsible for is weighing those risks for their children. Just as you would consider the potential impacts, down the road, of feeding your children certain foods or sending them to certain schools, you have to consider the potential impacts of sharing information about them. Sometimes, on balance, it will be worth it. Giving distant grandparents the pleasure of seeing their grandkids perform at the school play might well be worth the risk of embarrassing them a little bit later. Other times it won’t be. And once children are old enough to be included in other kinds of decision-making that affects them — such as what they’re going to eat or what they’re going to wear — one might start to include them in decisions about whether and how they’ll appear online. Indeed, bringing them into that process might help them learn how to make healthy decisions about such things for themselves later, when the time comes for them to start forging their own online identities.

Daniel Susser is assistant professor of philosophy at San Jose State University. He works in philosophy of technology, with a focus on its normative (social/political/ethical) dimensions. Before coming to San Jose State, he was a research fellow at the Information Law Institute at New York University’s School of Law. Susser was an invited guest lecturer at the Rock Ethics Institute.

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Note: The "Ask an Ethicist" column is a forum to promote ethical awareness and inquiry across the Penn State community. These articles represent the interests and judgments of each author as an individual scholar and are neither official positions of the Rock Ethics Institute nor Penn State University. They are designed to offer a possible approach to a subject and are not intended as definitive statements on what is or is not ethical in any given situation. Read the full disclaimer.

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Last Updated February 03, 2017