Mark Zuckerberg Hides his Kids — Should Other Parents?
Zuckerberg’s family portrait features himself, his wife, Priscilla Chan, and their three young children. In Zuckerberg’s caption, he says, “Lots to be grateful for this year. As the big girls get older, I love talking to them about why America is so great. Looking forward to discussing with little Aurelia soon.” Emojis obscure the two older children’s faces, while the infant, Aurelie, is pictured without an emoji.
Some commenters instantly wondered why the infant’s face was not also covered, to which other Instagram users replied that baby’s faces are unrecognizable. A baby’s appearance changes so rapidly and dramatically that many people, including Zuckerberg and Chan, do not believe it is necessary to blur or otherwise obscure.
However, the pair’s two older children are five and seven years old, and their faces are developed enough to become recognizable by strangers online and by facial recognition software — an issue that hits close to home for Zuckerberg.
Why Hide a Child’s Face?
Leah Plunkett, author of “Sharenthood” and associate dean of learning experience and innovation at Harvard Law School, tells CNN that blocking a child’s face provides that child control over their identity and personal narrative.
“Every time you post about your kids, you are chipping away at allowing them to tell their own stories about who they are and who they want to become. We grow up making mischief and more than a few mistakes and grow up better having made them. If we lose the privacy of teens and kids to play and explore, and to live and through trial and error, we will deprive them of the ability to develop and tell stories [on their terms],” Plunkett says.
Plunkett explains that the onus to protect children online thoroughly should not rest squarely on parents’ shoulders. She thinks that social media companies, including Meta, can do more, and should include technology that automatically blurs children’s faces.
Few people are as knowledgeable about the extent of a person’s active digital footprint and how sharing photos online affects that footprint as Zuckerberg. If Mark Zuckerberg hides his kids’ faces, Slate wonders, “What are the rest of us doing?”
“Some parents decide to keep photos of their kids on more intimate family photo-sharing platforms. Others, like Zuck, obscure their children’s faces on large platforms that are accessible anyway. Still more post with abandon, perhaps with a little nagging suspicion that this could come back to bite them. The parenting website Fatherly has explained that the risks of sharing kids’ photos span from ’embarrassment to identity theft,'” writes Shannon Palus for Slate.
Risks of Sharing Photos of Children Online Range from Mild to Horrific
In the Fatherly article that Palus references, Adam Bulger explains that there are many risks of sharing photos of kids online, ranging from somewhat mild outcomes like feeling a bit embarrassed to outright horrific consequences, including identity theft. There are also dangers concerning geolocation data, which can give malicious actors insight into where children live.
“Digital photos say more about you and your family than you might suspect,” writes Bulger.
“Every picture you post, depending on where you post it and how you send it, has this metadata attached to it which essentially are breadcrumbs of information about what’s in the photo and where you took it,” remarks Rahel Bayer, former sex crimes and child abuse prosecutor with the Bronx District Attorney’s office and misconduct and abuse prevention consultant.
“Every time you take a picture in your bedroom, bathroom, or living room or by your Christmas tree, or in your backyard, and depending on what you do with those images, you may be giving yourself a real roadmap into not only how your house is situated, where your kids are, but also what their hobbies are. Do they like to ride their bike and leave their bike in the front yard? Do they like to play baseball in the backyard? Do they walk to the local ice cream truck?” adds Bayer.
While some of that may sound like fearmongering — after all, child abductions are very rare and seldom perpetrated by random strangers — media psychologist Pam Rutledge of the Media Psychology Research Center says, “The danger of your child getting abducted by a predator is fairly low. But I don’t care if it’s one point one zero or some small percent. That’s still some kid. And I don’t want that kid to be mine.”
Other Hazardous Types of Theft
While kidnapping is a horrifying worst-case scenario, other forms of theft are becoming more prevalent in the age of social media.
Former “mom influencer” Katy Rose Prichard started a blog and frequently posted photos of her young family on Instagram. As Prichard explains to Good Morning America, she soon realized that she and her family had been victimized by people online who stole Prichard’s photos and began using them as their own.
While it is not unheard of that someone might steal photos for advertising or some other commercial gain, people were stealing Prichard’s images to pretend to be her and using pictures of her children to peddle fake stories.
It is an extreme violation, and despite Prichard’s best efforts to scrub the Internet of photos of her kids, it is impossible to know where they ended up. “I will never know where all of their photos end up. I’ll never know where they go or what they were really used for,” she laments.
People even created fake social media accounts for each of her kids. It proved to be a terrifying experience for her, and it is something that she will never be able to completely forget or ignore now that the images are floating around the web.
Prichard claims that Instagram did not want to help take down the accounts at first, saying they did not violate the platform’s terms of service. Eventually, after public outcry spurned by Prichard herself, Instagram took down the posts.
A Meta spokesperson told ABC News, “We remove accounts that impersonate others or use their content without permission, and we removed the accounts involved in this case. Parents can also let us know directly if they want a picture of their child removed from Instagram.”
“Any picture that we are posting on social media can be used by anyone in absolutely any way, and that includes by sexual predators. Once our child’s image is posted on social media, it is data and we have to think about it like data,” she said.
However, while some parents may obscure their children on social media because of these risks, others have concerns about how appearing on social media may impact a child’s development and sense of identity,” says author and podcast host Jo Piazza.
Piazza adds, “Any picture that we are posting on social media can be used by anyone in absolutely any way, and that includes by sexual predators. Once our child’s image is posted on social media, it is data and we have to think about it like data.”
Prichard says that she has sincerely reflected upon her children’s privacy in the wake of her experience, and urges “everyone to really think of what can happen with those images.”
Going Beyond Privacy: Autonomy Over a Digital Footprint
While Bulger’s article on Fatherly touches on the idea that children may grow up to be embarrassed by images their parents shared of them on social media, others have taken the concept of identity ownership further.
Celebrities Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard have always covered the faces of their children on social media. In an interview with Romper in 2020, Bell explained her decision. “My feeling is that I chose a career in the public eye. I chose to be quoted, I chose to have my picture taken. I don’t know them yet. I don’t know if they will want that. So I really don’t have the right to choose for them.”
However, while Bell and Shepard’s kids aren’t plastered on social media, Bell talks about her kids frequently and has shared some very intimate details about them, including stories about bed wetting and medical conditions.
The idea of “sharenting,” where parents post pictures and information about their children — and the similar concept of “oversharenting,” is under growing scrutiny. Social media has developed so quickly that people are continually coming to grips with its potential consequences, especially for young people.
Those who have grown up using social media are now having children of their own and sharing their children’s experiences with everyone online. There are repercussions of this that are worth considering.
In research by Anna Brosch, studies are cited that suggest that as many as 98% of parents post photos of their children on Facebook.
Research conducted back in 2010 suggested that, even then, the average child has a digital identity by the age of six. It is reasonable to expect that situation has only worsened.
In many cases, a child’s digital life is created before birth, thanks to sonogram photos and documented events such as baby showers.
As Mark Zuckerberg himself surely knows, Meta’s platforms have significantly contributed to this trend. Further, as the infamous Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal demonstrates, Meta has harvested and misused a lot of personal user data.
Social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram are foundationally built on the concept of sharing, and parents are arguably sharing too much about their kids online.
These digital footprints, created and cultivated without a child’s consent — as it is certainly not something a child can reasonably consent to in the first place — are potentially inescapable.
In a 2010 interview with The Wall Street Journal, then Google CEO Eric Schmidt predicted that one day, children would grow up to change their name to escape the digital past that they had no hand in creating.
Taking the Lead of People in Tech
Mark Zuckerberg is far from an outlier in the tech space when it comes to hiding his children’s faces. Amid cries of hypocrisy from some online commenters, Business Today notes that many other prominent people in big tech keep their children away from social media.
If the people behind the software and platforms that monetizes a person’s online activity and digital footprint think it is a good idea to obscure children’s faces, that should tell everyone else something important.
Children as young as toddlers have developed enough facial structure to be recognized by artificial intelligence (AI). By age seven, a child’s face will no longer change much.
When parents share photos of their kids online alongside information, even details that seem insignificant, data collection can rapidly develop a fully-fledged profile of a child long before that child ever creates their own online presence. At the very least, that is something that parents ought to consider.
Image credits: Photos licensed via Depositphotos and edited to obscure the faces of children.