Four months after she delivered her first baby, Allison Tan received a text message from a good friend asking her if “everything was ok” with her newborn. A little confused and not sure what prompted the text, Allison asked her friend why she sent the message.
Apparently, Allison’s friends were worried because they hadn’t seen a single photo of baby Meera on social media. Allison’s Facebook updates and Instagram posts had more or less ceased since she gave birth. And, there was nothing on the child on social media – definitely abnormal in this digital-age where parents post, share, like and repost their lives regularly online.
Even before their baby was born, Allison, a public relations consultant, and her husband Sivan had decided against oversharing photos of their baby online. Sure, they’d share the occasional photo but it wouldn’t be a daily habit.
“If our friends want to see Meera, we’ll invited them over for tea or just to hang out at our place. They are always welcome. We send our parents and family photos of Meera on WhatsApp and also through the post. But we just don’t see the need to constantly share photos of her on our feed. I don’t think it’s necessary or that my friends would appreciate their timelines being flooded with her photos. We actually take a lot of photos of her and if we were to post them all, we might break the Internet,” jokes Sivan, 35, an advertising executive who lives in Kuala Lumpur.
To share or not to share
Parents decide whether or not they want to post photos of their children online.But there are some critical issues to be considered, such as safeguarding the safety and privacy of the child.
“The convenience of sharing photos with friends and also non-friends through social networking sites and blogs is undeniable. Unfortunately, so are the dangers. Not only can photos be stolen and used by strangers such as being uploaded in unsavoury sites. But many photos, especially those taken with phones or devices with GPS technology that contain tags that reveal exactly where the photos were snapped. In other words, if a parent takes a photo of their child at home and posts it online, it is possible for strangers to track exactly where they live,” cautions Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC)’s senior director for advocacy and outreach Eneng Faridah Iskandar. A year ago, local comedian Harith Iskander got a rude shock when he found a photo of his then three-year-old son uploaded onto a pornographic website. Harith, 50, only found out about this when he received an email notification from Google Alerts. The comedian then wrote in to MCMC for the site to be taken down. He also posted about the incident on his Facebook page, calling it “both disgusting and incredibly disturbing”.
In Malaysia, says Eneng, social media accounts belonging to children of local celebrities are immensely popular.
“The most popular children’s Instagram accounts in Malaysia are those of the children of celebrities. Followers who follow these accounts are usually those who follow the parents in the first place. These are fans who are interested in the various aspects of these celebrities’ lives. The problem is, these photos tend to go viral. And these traffic spikes alert website owners and administrators, some of whom may then ride on the popularity by reposting the same photos on their own websites.
“These photos (of celebrity’s children) are often open to the public which then provides the opportunity for anyone to solicit the photos and use them without consent,” says Eneng adding that Engku Emran Engku Zainal Abidin who was formerly married to actress Erra Fazira also filed a report of misuse of their daughter’s photos.
Worldwide, authorities and online security experts say there are staggeringly high numbers of images being shared online between paedophiles and those who exploit children. Most of these images are pornographic in nature but many are of children in ordinary family-type photographs.
Last July, British parents cried foul when dozens of images of their children, as young as three, were taken from social media sites and posted on a Russian website used by paedophiles.
According to an online report by The Telegraph photos of naked, semi-naked toddlers were posted alongside snapshots of boys and girls in school uniforms and party dresses, along with inappropriate comments from users across the world, which showed that they were being used for sexual gratification.
Paedophelia websites source much of their photos from social media websites. According to the Australia’s Children’s safety Commisioner Alaistair MacGibbon, these websites source and steal images from parents who innocently post photos of their children online. In an interview published in the Sydney Morning Herald last September, MacGibbon said that while the images were not in themselves explotative, the comments attached to them by strangers were sexualized them.
In some instances, he said, the images were appropriated and viewed more than 1.7 million times within 10 days of being uploaded. The photos were catalogued in themes such as “kids at beach”, “nice boys play in river’ or “gymnasts”.
“These images are almost always accompanied by highly explicit and very disturbing user comments. Often users exchange email addresses with invitations to connect outside the site to trade content,” he said in the report adding that these sites would stop at nothing in their “obsessive efforts to obtain content”.
Living in a wired world
Despite the scare, Harith and his wife Dr Jezamine Lim continue to share photos of their three children on their social media platforms as a form of “communal sharing”,
“Back when we were young, we had photo albums which we would show to people when they come to the house. Now, we live in a generation where our Facebook account acts as our diary for the world to share,” he says.
Although Harith worry that his children’s photos could be stolen, he doesn’t let that fear control him.
“Yes, I do worry but I’m not going to hide myself or my family from the world. I’m not going to allow the world to change me. I will control it and have my freedom,” he says.
Celebrities Awal Ashaari and Scha Alyahya set up an instagram account for their daughter Lara Alanaa initially as a virtual photo album, to upload photos of their first born. However, because of Awal and Scha’s popularity, the account became insanely popular, with some 1.6 million followers todate.
While he admits that it’s hard to control the comments that are made on the account – some of which can be hurtful – Awal says that they do take precautions to ensure the safety of two-year-old Lara.
“When we decided to have a separate account for her, it was because as public figures, our fans wanted to know everything about her. We realised of course that we would be opening her up to the public but we make sure we are careful. We turn off the location settings and we only post the photos a few days after we have taken them so that people won’t be able to track her.
“Along the way, of course we have made mistakes and we learn from them. But we have also gotten positive feedback from other parents who give us advice. We are new parents, after all, and we are constantly learning,” he shares.
Although Lara has been scouted to be in advertisements, Awal insists that he and Scha are in no way exploiting their young one.
“We never force her to do something she isn’t keen on. She’s too young to give consent, of course, but if she indicates that she doesn’t want to take part in a shoot or something, we don’t force her. But, she seems to love being the centre of attention,” he says.
Television personality and host Daphne Iking has mixed feelings on the subject, although she does post photos of her three childen on her social media sites.
“I am careful and mindful when I post their photos and make sure that I take the necessary steps to protect their security. My parents didn’t take many photos of me or my siblings when we were growing up and I wanted my children to have a digital footprint of themselves as they are growing up, put up by us and captioned by us,” she says.
Keeping it private
Natashya Saufi from PS The Children agrees that parents need to be cautious and mindful about sharing images of their children online.
“It may seem harmless to parents but they must remember that they are exposing their child to everyone to see and share countless times. Your intentions when posting the photos may be harmless but there could be paedophiles looking at the picture for entirely wrong reasons,” she says.
She cautions parents against posting explicit photos of their children online.
“Lets face it. Almost everyone posts photos of their children but the key is to be sensible. Photos of their privates should remain private as well as photos that allude to (nudity). Stop to think about the photo before you post it what if it falls into the wrong hands?” she says.
Actress Lisa Surihani is a parent who has chosen to veer on the side of caution. She prefers not to post photos of her six-month-old daughter online, to safeguard her safety and privacy. Lisa and her husband Yusry Abdul Halim are popular celebrities and fans have been asking for photos of their daughter Yahaira Leanne, but they have not relented.
“I have learnt not to break under pressure. I’m not saying that Yusry and I will never post any photos of her but we will do it on our own terms.
“So far, we have posted only one photo of her on social media. It was after her aqiqah (ceremony to celebrate the birth), where we shared a photo of the three of us. After that, there were many who took the liberty of using that photo to set up accounts named after her to compile her photos.
“I think I want my daughter to decide when she’s old enough if she wants to be online or if she wants photos of herself to be online, with our guidance of course. I don’t want to make that decision for her. And I certainly don’t want people she doesn’t know to share photos of her,” says Lisa.
She asserts she is exercising her prerogative as a parent.
“It isn’t a judgement on anyone else. Many of my friends are more open to posting photos of their children online and I adore looking at them. I’m only speaking about my own preference,” says Lisa.