Parents' social posts could constitute child rights breach: Deakin expert

Media release
27 August 2019

Parents sharing their children's photos and personal information on social media could be an infringement of human rights, according to a Deakin law academic's submission to the UN.

Associate Lecturer within the Deakin Law School Cassandra Seery said the ubiquity of social media posts about everything from a child's birth date to where they lived and what they looked like was an emerging issue when it came to protecting child rights.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has sought public submissions to inform a 'General Comment' it plans to release about child rights in the digital age.

"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 said.

The focus of Ms Seery's submission is how children’s rights might be negatively impacted with a new generation whose every milestone is published online by their parents.

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

"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 said.

"As a consequence 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."

Ms Seery said the issue went beyond just privacy protection, and keeping children safe from violence, sexual exploitation or other forms of harm.

"The truth is we don’t really know how this data might be used in the future and how it may impact on a child's rights," she said.

"For example it has 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.

"Today's children are also the first generation to have their personal information shared online from birth.  Both public and private sector agencies are in a unique position to 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."

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.

But Ms Seery said there were a number of hurdles to overcome in addressing these issues.

"There's a lack of data on how children's information is disseminated online, inadequate regulation of the online environment, little domestic legal protections for children, adult users lacking the necessary digital literacy, and 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," she said.

"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.

"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."

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