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Why sharing photos of children on social media is criticised worldwide

Opinion column by Sabine Lembert

A snapshot of their little boy building a sandcastle, a photo of their daughter in her new swimsuit on the beach... Many parents share photos and videos of their holidays via networks such as WhatsApp, Facebook, TikTok or Instagram. Why do they do it? Firstly, because the Internet is a quick and easy way of transmitting content. Secondly, because the views, likes and shares are often good for the parents' egos.

Many don't realise that sharing images, often without the consent of the children depicted, not only exposes their privacy, but also creates an opportunity for paedophile predators. Indeed, a significant proportion of this content ends up circulating on sites involved in the distribution of child pornography, whether on the Web or the Darknet.

Sharenting: misunderstood parental pride

The phenomenon of parents sharing images of their children has a name: sharenting. It is made up of the word "parenting" and the verb "to share". But what fills adults with pride or joy can be embarrassing for children. And if not immediately, then perhaps years later. Surveys show that photos of a child before the age of 13 are shared on average 1,300 times on the Internet.

The Deutsches Kinderhilfswerk analysed the phenomenon of "sharenting" in a study and came to the conclusion that children have a very clear sense of the circumstances in which they agree or disagree with the publication of images or videos. Parents' and children's criteria for evaluating an image can be very different, so children may find images that adults consider harmless problematic. The study concludes that "[...] as a general rule, children would disclose far fewer images than their parents".

Misuse of innocent holiday snaps

As well as violating children's privacy and personality rights, innocent holiday snaps can quickly fall into the wrong hands and reappear - sometimes retouched in ways most parents can't even imagine - on child pornography websites.

According to the Australian Children's e-safety Commissioners, one child pornography site, for example, contained images of 45 million unsuspecting children. It was also found that 50% of the images shared on paedophile sites came from parents' social media pages.

Double standards behind data protection

But even more serious than the misuse of innocent photos of children is the deliberate use of innocent children for pornographic photos. If paedophiles are not part of their victims' entourage, social media, messaging platforms, gaming platforms, etc. offer many opportunities to come into contact with children. The possibilities range from soliciting sexually explicit images, having sexual discussions with children, uploading and sharing paedophile photos, to attempting to meet children in person and sexually abuse them.

What is particularly contradictory is that, on the one hand, the sharing parents mentioned above and the vast majority of social media users have few concerns about data protection when sharing images such as holiday snaps, sometimes going so far as to violate the privacy rights of their own children or those of others. On the other hand, privacy advocates are protesting vehemently against EU plans to have AI scan images on internet platforms such as Meta (Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram) to protect children from sexual abuse. This is despite the Commission finding that the group alone was responsible for around 95% of reports of abuse to date. Last year, Meta alone received more than 27 million such reports.

RECHTLICHES AdobeStock 597078600© ViDi Studio, AdobeStock

AI to combat child pornography on the global network

Technology companies already use a classification system, developed by a trade association called Tech Coalition, to categorise alleged child sexual abuse material according to the apparent age of the victim and the type of acts depicted. Nevertheless, photos of sexually abused children and pornographic films are on the increase. Last year, there were twice as many as the year before.

The European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johannsson, was shocked to learn from investigators that Europe had become the global hub for trafficking in depictions of sexual violence. For the Swede, the fact that nowhere else in the world is child pornography as widely distributed as in the European Union, and that depictions of sexual violence are increasingly extreme, is a real disgrace. In fact, almost 90% of all websites containing content linked to sexual abuse and violence against children are located on European servers.

Scanning photos of children on social media

This is why Johannsson is calling for a European law to protect children from abuse on the Internet. The corresponding bill, which privacy advocates are railing against, would require Internet portals to scan chats, photos and videos by AI before such material is even posted online - and can generally no longer be deleted. Such AI-based monitoring of chats, which neither understands nor stores the content of the communication, but simply eliminates positive results for subsequent human analysis and evaluation, would in future offer opportunities to ensure effective child protection that respects fundamental rights.

The example of "Sharenting" shows the enormous "room for interpretation" of the fundamental rights of personality and data protection, which should not serve the ego or the satisfaction of adults' needs, but the protection of children's vulnerable lives.

About the author

Sabine Lembert has been working as a freelance author since 2015. After many years in the TV industry, including as Senior Project Consultant at Endemol International and as Project Development Manager at Sony Pictures in the Netherlands, she decided to change her career.

As a mother of two, Sabine Lembert wanted more professional freedom and a job that prioritised women's and family issues. For this reason, the author, who now lives in Munich, decided to support women in their self-determination by regularly publishing specialist articles on financial education and also campaigning for children's rights.

Sabine Lembert on LinkedIn

This article is from the 1/2024 issue of the magazine "Life Abroad".

The magazine is published four times a year free of charge with many informative articles on foreign topics.

It is published by the BDAE, the expert for protection abroad.