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16 September 2016updated 07 Sep 2021 10:30am

“I was sitting on the toilet“: should teenagers be able to sue their parents over online photos?

An Austrian teen is suing her parents for uploading embarrassing childhood pictures to Facebook, yet most British teens can't yet do the same. 

By Amelia Tait

It’s happened. The thing legal experts, child psychologists, and social media cynics predicted since the first please-click-Like-on-this-picture-of-my-baby-otherwise-why-did-I-have-it picture landed on Facebook: a teenager is allegedly suing her parents for posting embarrassing photos of her online.

The 18-year-old from Austria told the paper Heute that her parents have spent years sharing over 500 photos of her with their hundreds of Facebook friends. “They knew no shame and no limits,” she said. “They didn’t care if I was sitting on the toilet or lying naked in the cot, every moment was photographed and made public.” What’s worse, they have now ignored her repeated requests to delete the photos.

This is the first case of its kind in the country, though earlier this year French parents were warned that sharing pictures of their children online meant potential fines of up to £38,000 under strict new privacy laws. In Britain, however, there is currently no explicit legal protection for children whose privacy is violated in this way.

“The difficulty we have is that in order to protect a child’s right to privacy we may have to restrict a parent’s right to freedom of expression,” says Dr Karen Mc Cullagh, a non-practising solicitor and law lecturer at the University of East Anglia. “People’s privacy boundaries vary. Some people are happy sharing lots of information about themselves, others are not. There is no clear line on what information it is socially acceptable to share or not, so it is very difficult to make a law in this area. People would accuse governments or networks of trying to police their thoughts.”

Mc Cullagh isn’t alone in believing the law isn’t the solution to the problems raised by the 1,000 pictures parents post of their children before they turn five. Dr Paul Bernal, her colleague and author of Internet Privacy Rights: Rights to Protect Autonomy says better parental education is necessary. “The law is a blunt instrument not really suited to this situation,” he says. “What would help a lot more would be greater understanding by parents that their kids might be embarrassed, hurt, and humiliated not just at the time but possibly more importantly later on. At a time when the problem of cyberbullying is becoming acute, the possibility for pictures being obtained and used by bullies is just one small example that parents really should be aware of.”

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Most parents are learning slowly. Early this year a spate of Youtube mums stopped filming their children after discovering their videos were being embedded on paedophile websites. A report in April also discovered that people are now sharing less personal information on Facebook than ever before. But what we consider “personal” or even “embarrassing” might not really be the issue. Building up an online identity for your child from the moment of their birth could have repercussions regardless of whether you post a picture of them on the potty.

“The long term impact of the posting of pictures and other information from birth is something that we can only speculate about but it is likely to be significant,” says Bernal. “Pictures in particular could make more difference than we imagine, particularly with facial recognition getting better and better all the time. An image of a child may allow recognition of the adult at a later age. This makes the past harder to escape, and again could create opportunities for bullying or indeed scamming.”

They say nothing can truly be deleted from the internet, but the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) may change this. Coming into force in May 2018, the GDPR will give people a “right to erasure”, the right to request that their personal data be deleted from a site. Whether this will work in practice for children who want to remove data their parents have uploaded, however, is yet to be seen.

 “The challenge the EU lawmakers faced was that they wanted to regulate social network owners but not interfere excessively with the freedom of expression rights of ordinary individuals,” says Mc Cullagh. “The lawmakers did not want to impose legal burdens on people who were simply sharing innocuous tidbits of information about their lives.”

So where does this leave humiliated children? Mostly, it is likely that the same loving parents who wanted to share pictures of their offspring will delete the pictures when the same offspring pleadingly ask. As the Austrian situation shows, however, this isn’t always reality, and it may be less likely to happen in scenarios where parents are directly profiting from their children.

The stand-up comedian Joe Heenan has hit the headlines multiple times this year after sharing light-hearted pictures of his children dressed up as the Argos catalogue for World Book Day, and using a milk bottle as a book bag. In each of the images he shares, his children display the same acted expression of pain, though it might only be a matter of time before they feel these emotions for real. Like comedians through the ages, Heenan finds material in his family, but the images he posts are much more long-lasting and potentially damaging than an anecdote told to a crowded bar.

When career advancement is involved, how can parents be trusted to do the best for their children? The author Julie Myerson came under fire for her “Living with Teenagers” Guardian column and subsequent book in which she wrote about her son’s use of cannabis. Her son later changed his name, saying: “I don’t want to be Jake Myerson any more. I don’t want all this to follow me for the rest of my life.” Winnie-the-Pooh fans will be devestated to hear that Christopher Robin was bullied mercilessly for his role in his father’s stories. Parents who film their children for YouTube have ignored death threats and the opinions of psychologists to continue to earn money from their videos.

When profit is involved, children may find it easier to seek legal recourse and prove damage was caused. Yet how do we define profit? Psychological studies have proven that Likes on social media give users an ego boost and increase their self-esteem, so should this count? When parents use their children to promote their own social media presence, does this change anything? 

We have to wait until November to see the outcome for the anonymous Austrian teen, and potentially a few more decades until today’s babies try to change the laws of the future. 

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