Parents need to respect their children's privacy online, experts say

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Sharing too much too soon can cause problems for children later in life

Politicians and religious leaders often argue about when life begins, but there's little argument about when online life begins and it's often before birth. Excited parents begin posting anything and everything about their children, often starting with those grainy in-utero scans.

While online sharing can be good for parents, providing them support from friends and family, it can also have some very real consequences for children later in life, according to researchers who presented their findings at the American Academy of Pediatrics conference in San Francisco on Friday.

"The amount of information placed in the digital universe about our children in just a few short years is staggering," said Dr. Bahareh Keith, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Florida College of Medicine. "Parents often consider how to best protect children while the child is using the internet. However, parents -- including myself, initially -- don't always consider how their own use of social media may affect their children's well-being."

"Responsible and thoughtful ..."

Keith said pediatricians should be advocates for increased awareness among parents to protect a child's online identity.

"We need to encourage responsible and thoughtful sharing," law professor Stacey Steinberg, JD, said. She said there is "a dearth of discussion on the topic that leaves even the most well-meaning parents with few resources to thoroughly appreciate the issue before pressing `share' on their digital devices."

Steinberg cautions that information shared can be stolen or repeatedly re-shared, unbeknownst to parents, potentially ending in the hands of pedophiles or identify thieves.

"Even more likely, the child might one day want to have some privacy and control over his or her digital identity," Steinberg said, noting that the first "children of social media" are just now entering adulthood, college, and the job market. "Untangling the parent's right to share his or her own story and the child's right to enter adulthood free to create his or her own digital footprint is a daunting task."

Previous research has shown that 92 percent of two-year-olds in the United States have an online presence, and about one-third make their first appearance on social media sites within their first 24 hours of life.

The researchers called for the proposal of public health-based, best-practice guidelines that include encouraging parents to familiarize themselves with the privacy policies of the sites they use, to post anonymously if they choose to share about their children's behavioral struggles, and to give their child "veto power" over online disclosures, including images, quotes, accomplishments, and challenges.

They also advise never to share pictures that show their children in any state of undress or share their child's actual location in a post.  

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