Published January 1, 2023
Illustration by Radia Durrani
Illustration by Radia Durrani

"Like many mothers, I used to post pictures of my sons quite often on social media,” says Fareeha Sultan, a mother of two teenage boys. However, she became uncomfortable with this and stopped sharing their pictures online since she wanted them to post their own images when they were old enough to create their own social media profiles.

Now that they are teenagers and post pictures themselves, Sultan also shares their photos on her accounts, but is much more mindful. “I am working with an organisation that doesn’t encourage revealing too much personal and professional information on social media,” she reveals. The truth of the matter is that most people rarely think about the potential negative consequences of posting their pictures and pictures of their children online.

The reality of the online domain is that once a picture is posted on social media, the image no longer belongs to the person who shared it. The social media networking site owns the rights to use images posted on the site however it likes, without seeking consent or informing the person who originally posted them because the site owns the licence.

Naz Farooq*, a mother of two young boys, does not share her children’s photographs on social media platforms because she is aware of the possible consequences of doing so.

“My husband and I only share such photos on WhatsApp and that too with just immediate family members, who we know will not forward them to anyone else,” says Farooq. “I don’t know why people post their children’s photos online indiscriminately. It’s not a good habit and exposes them to all sorts of risks, ranging from identity theft to harassment.”

While for some people social media platforms provide a welcome distraction, many have fallen prey to the more unseemly elements of the digital realm. As access to the internet becomes more widespread, how do we ensure that children remain safe on the web?

Since every photo posted online has a digital trace, it can be used to track down someone’s identity and location. “We have to realise that posting pictures online can have serious implications. Pictures can be lifted from the original site and used for more nefarious means and there is also the possibility that the child is targeted,” says Farieha Aziz, co-founder of Bolo Bhi, an organisation working in the digital rights space.

“The terms and conditions of some networking sites often state that, from the moment the image is uploaded, the website owns the rights to use it without any consent. This can be a really scary thought, when you have no idea what it can be used for and by whom,” notes Shayne Sherman, CEO of Techloris, a tech support site.

People often think that tightening their privacy settings secures their pictures, but Aziz says this is not enough. “Nothing is private on the web. No matter how strong your privacy settings are, your profile can get hacked.

“Also, if your profile is secure, it is not necessary that your friends’ profiles are. Pictures can be copied from there. Furthermore, anyone who has access to your photos could fall prey to data theft, which means your photos get exposed to the world too,” she adds.

It’s not only photos left online for long periods of time that run the risk of being misused as even short-term posts meant for a select audience on Instagram or Snapchat are not safe. People can take screenshots and save them and a data breach from their computer can expose the information to the entirety of the internet, including the Dark Web.

How then can one ensure children’s safety online? According to Aziz, “There are no hard and fast rules to protect your child. However, if you are posting someone else’s photos, it is important to ask for their or their parents’ permission. It is also advisable to not post photos of children in their school uniform. To be on the safe side, post group pictures of children instead of individual images, or simply blur the faces of the kids,” she says.

“Ultimately, it’s not always possible to safeguard your pictures online since there is no foolproof method to prevent breaches of privacy.”

People rarely take a child’s consent before posting their images online. “Most children are photographed in a variety of situations and when we share their pictures online, they often feel embarrassed if the image is not a flattering one, or if it reveals something they are uncomfortable with. This may well lead to them being ridiculed by their classmates and affect their interactions at school,” says Dr Asha Bedar, a clinical psychologist and trainer who deals with issues related to gender, abuse and trauma.

Aziz adds that a child’s right to privacy as well as their consent is important. “Even children have agency and their say should matter,” she says. “There are lots of incidents where such photos have been misused, especially in cases dealing with child pornography,” says Aziz.

“The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, considers the misuse of pictures as criminal behaviour. A complaint regarding such activities can be registered with the FIA.”

Aziz also points out that many social media platforms have a procedure for formally lodging a complaint if a breach of privacy occurs. Besides registering a complaint with the FIA, people can also approach organisations working in cyber privacy to help assist them. Additionally, the Digital Rights Foundation also has a helpline, where online users can voice their concerns and seek advice.

Given the easy access to the internet and mobile devices today, many children post their pictures across various social media platforms without giving it a second thought. “So much of a child’s life is spent online. We have to understand that anything we put online can be used against us,” says Dr Bedar. “If a problematic situation arises online, its ramifications can often extend beyond the virtual world. This can result in children losing friends and not wanting to go to school due to a fear of being judged for what may have occurred on the web,” she says.

Unfortunately, Amna*, a school student, has suffered at the hands of this very phenomenon. After posting pictures on Snapchat which her family later described as ‘objectionable’, Amna came into contact with a group of boys online, which resulted in some troubling interactions. Her family did not want to divulge the exact details of what occurred, but they did reveal that they stepped in to help Amna as soon as they learned about what was going on.

While Amna’s parents had initially restricted her phone usage, this changed after the pandemic, since she needed to be online regularly to complete her school work. Amna now says that she made a mistake by posting those images on Snapchat, but she feels that she is still being judged for her error. As a result, she is experiencing a considerable degree of guilt and she has become quieter and more reserved after the incident.

Dr Bedar stresses that the fear of being judged is a significant mental health issue which has been exacerbated by the prevalence of social media platforms. The navigational skills of children, i.e. how they handle challenging situations, are fairly limited. “Hence, if a child’s privacy is compromised, they begin to withdraw socially and feel isolated and depressed,” according to Dr Bedar.

“It is difficult for children to judge people online and there is a chance that they may trust the wrong person in the digital realm. They need help and guidance to ensure that they are taught the requisite social skills early on in life so that they can navigate these issues with a certain degree of clarity,” says Dr Bedar.

Children also need to be taught that, if such a problem arises, it is okay to seek help. Counselling and therapy can teach children to cope with such situations as well as how to deal with other people, both in school and in society at large.

Unfortunately, instead of seeking help, people often remain in denial. For instance, Amna’s mother, Sabahat*, refuses to accept what happened to her daughter. As a result of her own denial, she also refuses to take her daughter to counselling sessions to help her overcome what she had to go through.

Despite the challenges, Dr Bedar remains hopeful that open channels of dialogue between parents, children and trained therapists can help individuals navigate the pitfalls of the online world.

“Conditions are changing and a lot of parents contact psychologists and bring their children for therapy or counselling,” she says. “Sometimes children don’t want to talk to their parents about such things, since they are worried that they might be scolded. Talking to a therapist helps as we work with the family in order to rectify the situation.”

**Name changed to protect identity
The writer is a freelance journalist
and tweets @naqviriz*

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 1st, 2023



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