I remember the first time I ever came across the concept of a selfie. I was about 15 years old and the only social media site that I knew of was MySpace. I didn’t know much about selfie photo-taking, but I did know that the most flattering angle was to hold the camera above my head and to look up into the lens with big eyes and a steady pout. If all else failed, an equally pouty picture in a mirror would suffice.
What were the dangers of me taking this selfie and uploading it to MySpace? Was I putting myself in harm’s way? Was I being sexualised? Should I have even had access to a social media site to post my image? These are all questions that parents are asking themselves.
Now an adult, I have growing concerns about our internet privacy and the more that I learn about the subject, the more I believe that providing teenagers with privacy tools as well as an education about internet privacy is the solution.
Why do children take selfies and post them online?
When children take selfies it is as much about self-exploration, curiosity and imitation as it is about vanity. One psychologist from UCLA reported that “self-captured images allow young adults and teens to express their mood states and share important experiences.”1 In a digital age, a selfie is largely the age-old experience of experimenting with your image and expressing a certain mood or moment.
However, selfies are also about self-esteem and the need to be liked and admired. Girls often perceive themselves as being less “pretty”, “sexy” and “popular” because they have less Facebook ‘likes’ on their picture than another girl’s.
What are the dangers of my child posting selfies online?
Firstly, once an image is posted online there is no knowing where that image will end up. Recently, there have been a number of cases where women’s Facebook photos were downloaded and used in advertisements for porn sites.2 Even reputable companies have taken people’s personal images from social media sites and used them in their advertisements.3 And social media sites themselves are guilty of using their our images (for instance the Facebook profile picture) in their own advertisements.
The second problem is that whilst kids often assure their parents that they have high privacy settings, these settings are often grossly inadequate. Privacy settings work on the assumption that only people listed as your “friends” or “followers” can view your posts. This allows you to share content only with those who you know will respect that content and will not abuse your photos (for instance, by posting them on another website). However, as social media is an extension of the playground, children and teenagers are more likely to accept friend requests from people that they barely know to boost their “friends” lists in a bid to appear popular. Scrolling through the friend lists of various teens on my Facebook, the total numbers of their friends varied from around 800 to well over 1000. I’m not convinced that these teenagers have even met these so-called friends, let alone know and trust them.
Over the years I have received many dubious friend requests from middle-aged men and teenage boys on Facebook who tell me that I “look good”. Whilst I ignore these requests, a younger person may take the message as a compliment and accept the request. A pervert could realistically be a child’s online friend. Even if that child never talks or meets up with them, that individual would still have access to all of their content, including any provocative selfies.
A final problem that is not raised often enough is geotagging. Geotags are invisible signatures of data imprinted onto the image. This signature states the date, time and location of where that photo was taken. With some basic software, criminals and perverts are able to retrieve that data and if your child is taking selfies in their bedroom then it is very easy for anyone with that data to work out where they live. It is possible to stop this by turning off the location settings on your child’s phone or camera, but it’s more than likely that they will innocently turn them back on when using certain apps like Google Maps.
So, should I stop my child from taking selfies and posting them online?
The problem isn’t so much the selfie, but the repercussions of posting that selfie online. When I posted my first ever selfie on MySpace I had no concept that one day MySpace’s ownership would change and that my account would be erased along with those changes (what ever happened to my MySpace account by the way?) I have no idea who looked at that selfie, downloaded it, shared it or used it. I imagine that my awkward selfie is still floating somewhere in cyberspace or at least stored on MySpace’s servers. As an adult I want to share my images on my public Twitter and Instagram, but I also want a real say over how my image are used.
So what are the solutions for both us and our children?
- Educate children about the problems of sharing their selfies online. As Microsoft researcher Danah Boyd says, “[Teenagers] want to be in public. But that doesn’t mean that they want to be public.” All children and teenagers need to understand the dangers of accepting strange friend requests, geotagging and photo theft. Social media is an extension of their social life and it should be used as such – they wouldn’t talk to the strange man or woman in the street so why have them on their online networks?
- Provide them with good privacy tools. Easy to use and affordable software such as ScramPhoto ensures that the image is encrypted. It scrambles the geotag, provides various different types of watermarks, and reduces the quality of the image so that if it is downloaded it looks grainy and pixilated when enlarged. ScramPhoto can even be downloaded as an app so that the photos can be edited directly from your child’s phone.
- Reiterate to your child that their self-worth is not based on their social media status. The number of followers and likes they receive is not an indication of their self-worth. Would we say that the singer Rihanna is more beautiful and more popular than Beyoncé because she has 38 million Twitter followers to Beyoncé’s 13.7 million? As one of the most admired women in the world, I very much doubt it.
My parents didn’t grow up with the internet and they had little to no understanding of this strange computerized world filled with duck pouts, hashtags and group chats. As protective as they were, my introduction to social media and the World of the Selfie was pretty much unchartered and over the years I have learned to negate it. Whilst I always had an awareness of privacy issues, I wish that I had been taught more about internet privacy and been given the tools to protect myself online.