Kids, consent and privacy: #musesocial edition

I had an interesting conversation last week about the concerns of consent and privacy when using photographs of vulnerable populations on social media. A question came up about developing takedown policies for social content, which I hadn’t considered before. Some images of people that might be appropriate when put online might later become problematic for the person whose photo had been taken–for instance, if the person whose photograph was shared experienced changed circumstances and no longer wanted to be associated with or publicly represented by that period in their life.

While those ideas were still marinating, I saw a Tweet from Kate Carruthers linking to a piece on FastCompany by a 14 year old who quit Facebook after discovering that her mother and sister had been sharing social content about her for more than a decade of her life without her consent.

Then, several months ago, when I turned 13, my mom gave me the green light and I joined Twitter and Facebook. The first place I went, of course, was my mom’s profiles. That’s when I realized that while this might have been the first time I was allowed on social media, it was far from the first time my photos and stories had appeared online. When I saw the pictures that she had been posting on Facebook for years, I felt utterly embarrassed, and deeply betrayed.

There, for anyone to see on her public Facebook account, were all of the embarrassing moments from my childhood: The letter I wrote to the tooth fairy when I was five years old, pictures of me crying when I was a toddler, and even vacation pictures of me when I was 12 and 13 that I had no knowledge of. It seemed that my entire life was documented on her Facebook account, and for 13 years, I had no idea.

I could understand why my mother would post these things; to our extended family and her friends they were cute, funny moments. But to me they were mortifying. Scrolling through my sister’s tweets, I saw what my sister had been laughing about. She would frequently quote me and the random things I would say, it seemed anything I had ever said to her that she thought was funny was fair game. Things I had no idea she was posting online.

I had just turned 13, and I thought I was just beginning my public online life, when in fact there were hundreds of pictures and stories of me that, would live on the internet forever, whether I wanted it to be or not, and I didn’t have control over it. I was furious; I felt betrayed and lied to.

My husband and I have chosen not to put photos of our daughter online in large part because of these concerns around consent, privacy and representation. But I wonder now about museums and other institutions who use photographs of children and other vulnerable populations on their social media channels. How many institutions are thinking about or actively addressing the long-term footprint of their social media output? While there are often strong legal and ethical protections over the use of images of children, which require consent by a responsible adult, children themselves do not necessarily have the right or ability to consent to the use of their photographs. And although museums do not necessarily have the habit of putting images up that might seem embarrassing or problematic up, we are also not in the best place to define how someone else wants to be represented over the long term.

I asked this question in brief over the weekend, and got a few interesting responses, but I’d like to hear more about if and how institutions are thinking about this issue.

Has your institution have conversations about this topic, or the circumstances of removing old images from social media? I imagine there might be other reasons for taking down old social pics images, such as those Bethany Noel Nagle mentions, but I’d like to hear if anyone has a clear strategy for unpublishing old social images.

What does your institution do? What do you think they should be doing?

2 thoughts on “Kids, consent and privacy: #musesocial edition

  1. So, a bit of a thought experiment here — first, remove the phrase “social media” from the context above. The experience described in which photos are shared and stories are told that are personally embarrassing seems to be a common practice even without social media. When I was a child, my parents had photo albums that came out at family events, there were even some 16mm films, and my parents talked to their friends about the things that I had done.

    The social media 40 years ago was just inherently physical rather than digital. So, the practice of sharing which seems to be the objection isn’t substantially new. Is the real issue the permanence of these things rather than the notion of easy sharing? But my parents have told those same stories of my youth to my own children. They’ve even pulled out those photo albums and shown them again and again.

    This doesn’t sound like a social media issue — isn’t that just a symptom of a more fundamental question? ie, what is an organization’s policy around using old photos and what do we do with them over time? Why is the policy different for social media vs digital marketing vs physical photos?

    1. Bruce, I’ve been thinking about this answer for a few days because to a certain extent, it makes sense. But I don’t think that I’m satisfied with it. I do think there are differences between the intimate (if embarrassing) social exchange showing photographs of loved ones to other friends and family and creating a public archive of someone’s life in a social media context, particularly when done without consent. You talk about removing “social media” from the context above, but I think that the context *is* important. Part of it is around sharing, but I do think that longevity is a factor. You ask about an organization’s policy around using old photos, and I think that is a relevant question. But many institutions (ideally, most) will update their photos over time to ensure that their image is up-to-date. The same might not be true with the trove of old images on social media. And while in most cases that won’t be an issue, I do think in some cases (say, vulnerable populations participating in a program), it might be.

      Context is important, and social media has different conventions from other forms of digital marketing. Thinking through the longer implications of that should be part of our job, too.

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