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Privacy and your child's rights online

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Taking a photo of mother and child


Worry about what your child sees online but happily post pics of them in the bath? It could be time for a re-think.

It’s not unusual for parents to share hundreds of photos and personal details about their children on social media, but calls are now being made for a child’s right to choose what is shared.

According to Associate Lecturer at Deakin Law School Cassandra Seery, the ubiquity of social media posts about everything from a child’s birth date to where they live and what they look like is now an emerging issue when it comes to protecting children’s rights.

It’s been 30 years since the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has now sought public submissions to inform a ‘General Comment’ it plans to release about child rights in the digital age.

The focus of Ms Seery’s submission to the Committee is how children’s rights might be negatively impacted with a new generation, whose every milestone is published online by their parents in what’s known as ‘sharenting’.

“A General Comment is basically expert guidance from the United Nations about how each country can respect, protect and fulfil the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Australia is a party,” Ms Seery says.

“Social media is relatively new for us, and we’re the first generation of parents that had the option to opt in to social media, so we had that choice of whether we wanted to engage. But the problem is that most of us haven’t given much thought to what impact social media will have on our children and whether we’re giving them the choice to engage in that medium.” 

A study undertaken by the London School of Economics found that three in four parents regularly posted photos and videos of their children on social media.

“This behaviour is not illegal and children have no rights to prevent it. Indeed, their status as a minor ensures that their rights are entrusted to parents who are assumed to act in a child’s best interests,” Ms Seery says.

“Parents are entrusted with a child’s personal information and control the circumstances in which that information is released. But the evolution of the digital environment, in particular the rise of social media, now allows adults to share a child’s personal information in an instantaneous and unregulated way.

“Any content that is uploaded to social media platforms gives those businesses an immediate, universal licence to distribute without being sued, and there’s no telling how widely it could be viewed or mined for data.”

According to Ms Seery, the problem is that nobody really knows how this data might be used in the future and how it may impact on a child’s rights.

“It’s become increasingly common practice for prospective employers to conduct ‘social media screenings’. These processes could also be applied to children in a range of circumstances.

“Private education institutions may choose to screen parents’ profiles to determine the suitability of prospective students, which may impact on rights relating to non-discrimination and access to education.”

There have been suggestions that ‘sharenting’ could even have legal implications for parents. And, while some children encourage parents to post photos or videos about them online, there is clear evidence that not all children are comfortable having their life scattered across the internet.
Cassandra Seery

Today’s children are also the first generation to have their personal information shared online from birth.  According to Ms Seery, both public and private sector agencies are now in a unique position.

“It means they have access to lifelong digital records of a child’s personal information, opening the door to its use in determining access to public services such as social security, access to justice, and the provision of healthcare, including access to affordable insurance.

These potential impacts could extend beyond childhood, leading to lifelong inequalities.”

While many parents are aware that sharing their child’s date-of-birth online is not a wise thing to do – Ms Seery believes many might not understand the reasons why.

Barclay’s Bank recently revealed that parents are compromising their children's future financial security with so much online sharing. Barclay's Bank forecasts by 2030 it could cost almost $1billion in online fraud.

The bank's security specialists blame social media for making identity fraud easier than ever. As parents publish so much personal information, which remains online even when they’re adults, they are potentially making their children "fraud targets" in the future.  

“We’ve seen employers and recruiters scanning a person’s profile as part of the recruitment process; I don’t think it is particularly far-fetched to envision these kinds of measures being taken by educational institutions when assessing a child’s enrolment, for example. An unfortunate post might have serious implications for our children’s education,” Ms Seery says.

“There have also been many examples of photos shared on social media turning up on porn sites.  

“There have been suggestions that ‘sharenting’ could even have legal implications for parents. And, while some children encourage parents to post photos or videos about them online, there is clear evidence that not all children are comfortable having their life scattered across the internet.” 

Ms Seery said countries like Australia needed to step up and develop measures that effectively respond to child rights and welfare in the digital environment.

“Measures could include the introduction of prompts prior to posting photos or videos of children online, restricting the sharing of content that includes a child’s information, disabling photo ‘tagging’ of children, changes to the Privacy Act, and the introduction of mandatory reporting for tech companies,” she said.

According to Ms Seery there are several hurdles to overcome in addressing these issues. Some of these hurdles include:

  • A lack of data on how children’s information is disseminated online.
  • Inadequate regulation of the online environment.
  • Few domestic legal protections for children.
  • Adult users lacking the necessary digital literacy.
  • A cultural approach that defers to parents always knowing what’s best for their child and a presumption that they are acting in their interest.

“We need to see more education for parents and children to raise awareness about the risks of sharing information online. And governments must work with tech companies to ensure they are providing child-safe environments, with regulation in place that protects children’s information,” Ms Seery says.

“The decision to enter the digital environment invites a number of significant risks, both online and offline. Children must have the right to choose when and how they enter the digital environment and be protected from dangers that arise from others sharing their information.”

Online 'Sharenting'

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