Protecting young children in the digital age

For many parents these days, it’s a natural impulse to want to post photos and videos of our kids on social media. Unfortunately, in sharing this information online, we’re unwittingly putting our children at risk. The dangers have only multiplied with the introduction of artificial intelligence. How can we better protect our children in the digital age?


Your child’s digital footprint

A child’s digital footprint puts them at risk even if their parents remove all photos and videos of them from social media.

By Maude Goyer

Birthday parties, family activities, visits from friends, day-to-day life at home—for Minh, 35, whose three boys are aged 5 months, 4, and 8, everything used to feel like a good excuse to take family photos. He and his wife agreed: posting photos on social media was harmless, and it allowed them to keep their extended family, some of whom live in the States, in the loop.

However, Minh recently decided to take down all images of his kids from his social platforms. “All it took was one incident to change my mind!” he says. Both Minh and his wife did a 180 the day their eldest son’s face appeared on the home page of a day camp he’d attended. “It didn’t seem like a big deal when we agreed to allow photos taken during the summer camp to be shared on a public platform, but we didn’t realize they’d be used like that,” Minh explains.

Eventually, the family managed to have the photo removed, but not without losing time, sleep, and energy. “We were worried, and we also felt guilty,” says Minh.

A child’s digital footprint puts them at risk even if their parents remove all photos and videos of them from social media.

Although the photo of Minh’s son is gone, his digital footprint remains. “A digital footprint is all the data you leave behind online and on the internet, including photos, videos, and personal information,” says Alexandre Plourde, a lawyer and an analyst at Option consommateurs.

“A parent who doesn’t take precautions may suffer the consequences, and so could their child,” says René Morin, spokesperson for the Canadian Centre for Child Protection. “You can wipe the internet clean of photos of your child, but that’s never a foolproof guarantee. Some sites and platforms may continue to host the images or personal information.

Are the apps used by daycare centres and schools safe?
Many daycare centres and schools in Quebec use applications that gather lots of information about students and their families. App such as Planitou, ClassDojo, and Klassroom help create communities by connecting parents, children, educators, and teachers. Unfortunately, they’re subject to little oversight and aren’t always safe to use, says cybersecurity expert Steve Waterhouse, who teaches computer security at the Université de Sherbrooke. “As soon as an application is associated with a user, it leaves a digital footprint,” he explains. “It’s no different at schools and daycares!”

In Waterhouse’s view, the lack of information and knowledge, as well as the lack of caution on the part of all parties involved (schools, management, parents), puts children’s safety at risk. According to him, one solution is to ask questions. “For example, parents can look into privacy policies and ask what information about their child is being stored,” he says. “The answers to these types of questions are a good indication of whether the people in charge know what they’re doing.” Waterhouse hopes to one day see this issue come up in public debates.

The risks of posting on social media

Oversharing photos of your child can pose a number of short- and long-term problems.

According to a vast 2018 study by the Children’s Commissioner for England, by the time a child is 12, their parents will have shared, on average, 1,300 photos of them online.

Oversharing photos of your child can pose a number of short- and long-term problems. “Too often, parents don’t realize the issues it can cause,” says René Morin. It’s important to think about how the photos could be used, in particular by ill-intentioned people.

What risks do parents expose their children to when they share photos and personal information? How can it affect their safety?

Identity theft

Information shared on the internet is catnip for scammers. “Let’s say a parent posts a photo to celebrate their child’s birthday or first day of school,” says Alexandre Plourde. “That harmless-looking post could reveal the name of the child’s school, their age, their street and neighbourhood, et cetera.”

Scammers could potentially use that information even years later to hack into one of the child’s accounts by answering the security questions (e.g., What was the name of your first school? What was your first pet’s name?).

“An adult who gets scammed or who falls victim to identity theft will figure it out fairly quickly, but that’s not the case for a child,” says Plourde. “It might take years for them to realize what happened.”


Baby photos posted on social media, such as of a toddler using the potty, can be used to bully a child later on. “Kids can end up being made fun of or humiliated at school,” says Plourde. “It can change how people see them.” The images may also infringe on your child’s privacy since you’re sharing them without their consent.

Child pornography

Morin warns that sexual predators can collect images of children online and use them for various purposes. Sextortion, for example, involves blackmailing a child by threatening to post images of them if they refuse to send more, or if they don’t pay a certain amount of money.

Magali, who has two girls, aged 4 and 6, stopped sharing photos and videos of her kids on Instagram when her 12-year-old niece became a victim of sextortion. “I watched my sister and her family go through hell,” the 38-year-old says. “Her daughter had made friends with someone online who turned out to be a sexual predator. They went to the police and the man was eventually charged, but that really opened my eyes! I thought that sort of thing only happened to other people.”

The dangers of artificial intelligence

The rise of artificial intelligence, or AI, is creating even more cause for concern, as deepfake technology is being used to create false images. For example, a child’s face can be taken from a photo or video and stitched onto someone else’s body. The doctored images can then end up on child pornography platforms or be used to manipulate the child. AI can also imitate a child’s voice from a video. “Software and apps are developing fast, and the results are astounding,” says Morin. “It’s impossible to tell what’s real and what’s fake.”

Best practices

Here’s how to share more safely.

So, given the risks, should we still share photos and videos online, or should we avoid it altogether? According to Marie-Pier Jolicoeur, lecturer and doctoral student in law at Université Laval and contributor to the Centre pour l’intelligence émotionnelle en ligne (CIEL), there’s no need to panic. “There are two opposing factors at play here,” she says, “our freedom as parents to post about our kids and our children’s right to privacy. We need to learn to strike a balance between the two. That doesn’t mean we have to stop posting about our kids altogether, but we do have to be more careful about what we share.”

Here’s how to share more safely:

Avoid posting pictures of your child in vulnerable situations.

“Before sharing anything involving your child, it’s important to put yourself in their shoes,” says Jolicoeur. It’s best to avoid posting photos of your child in an embarrassing situation (e.g., in the middle of a meltdown). In addition, you should never post nude or partially nude pictures of your child (e.g., in the bathtub or on the potty). Ask yourself: “Could this be embarrassing or cause them problems when they’re older?”

You can also talk to your child and ask their permission before posting. According to Jolicoeur, this will help them develop a healthy relationship with the internet and social media, and they’ll be better equipped to protect their own pictures and personal information when they’re older. There’s no specific age when you should start asking your child for consent to post about them. It depends on their level of maturity and personality.

Limit how often you post and avoid sharing certain information.

“Ask yourself: ‘Is it really a good idea to plaster the internet with photos of my children? Who’s benefiting from this, and what am I trying to accomplish?’” says René Morin. You should also avoid posting personal information, such as your child’s name, birth date, address, pet’s name, favourite TV shows, health details, etc. And remember that pictures also count as personal information.

Tighten your privacy settings and use private platforms.

Experts strongly recommend that parents tighten their social media privacy settings by setting their profiles to “private.” Even better, consider sharing photos of your child via private platforms, such as email, text, Messenger, WhatsApp, or private Facebook groups. “It’s still not without risk, but it’s certainly a safer option,” says Jolicoeur.

Secure your accounts
Posting photos, videos, and information about your child on social media can be dangerous. To minimize your risk, a good first step is to set your social media profiles to “private.” Our simple and practical guide (in French only) shows you how, step by step: Guide to securing your social media accounts

Educate your family and friends.

Some parents are taking a more cautious approach to reduce their child’s digital footprint. However, their family and friends are not always on board. This is why it’s so important to communicate your expectations and needs to your loved ones. Marie-Catherine, mother to 4-year-old twins, did exactly that.

“After a kids’ party at a neighbour’s house, I saw a photo of my sons on Facebook,” she says. “I wasn’t too thrilled. I took the time to tell my friends they had to ask my permission before posting anything about my children. They didn’t mean to do anything wrong, they just didn’t think it through.”

According to Jolicoeur, attitudes are changing and people are increasingly aware of the dangers of posting photos and videos of minors. “We can tell the people close to us we want to take steps to avoid any harmful consequences,” she says. “The important thing is to talk to them to raise awareness and open up a dialogue.”

Do you know about the right to control photos and videos of yourself?
Did you know that unless you are in a public place or at a public event, no one can share a photo or video of you without your consent?

This is because of the right to control photos and videos of yourself. Children also have these rights: parental authorization is required to post and share images of them. Under the Civil Code of Québec, both parents’ authorization must be obtained, regardless of whether they are separated, before images of their child are posted. However, one parent can make this decision on their own if they assume, in good faith, that the other parent agrees.

Beware connected toys

These days, there are hundreds of connected toys on the market. While they may seem harmless at first glance, they can increase the risk of personal data leaks.

These days, there are hundreds of connected toys on the market. While they may seem harmless at first glance, they can increase the risk of personal data leaks.

The interactive My Friend Cayla doll, for instance, made headlines a few years ago. Able to talk and answer children’s questions, the toy was banned in Germany due to privacy risks.

The cameras, microphones, and sensors built into connected toys enable companies to collect a wealth of data on the children who play with them. For example, camera footage or conversations your child may have with their smart teddy bear can be recorded and stored on the manufacturer’s or external servers.

What’s more, as with any connected device, these toys are liable to security flaws that increase the risk of personal data being leaked and made vulnerable to bad actors. This happened in Canada a few years ago when hackers accessed the data of hundreds of thousands of children via the servers of a children’s tablet manufacturer.

The number of reports received each month by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection concerning images of children.

How to make connected toys safer

Before purchasing or using a connected toy for their child, parents should research the manufacturer and read the information it provides, including the fine print (e.g., FAQs, privacy policy). Does the company supply clear and complete information on data protection? “When in doubt, don’t buy the toy,” says Alexandre Plourde, a lawyer and an analyst at Option consommateurs.

It’s also wise to configure smart toys so they’re secure. Plourde recommends that parents restrict certain parameters if the option exists. They should also enter as little information as possible about their child (first and last name, birth date, etc.) and disable Bluetooth (used for geolocation).

Lastly, be careful when using apps for children; they’re no different from any other apps. Just like other users, children leave a digital footprint every time they play an online game. Some games require the user to create a profile, or they send daily notifications to their mobile device. Both of these things allow companies to learn more about the user and their habits.

Things to keep in mind
  • There are risks to posting photos, videos, and information about your child online.
  • When they’re older, your child may not be comfortable with the personal information you’ve shared. It could also fall into the wrong hands (bullies, scammers, child abusers, etc.).
  • It’s better to limit how often you post about your child and, if they’re old enough, to ask for their consent first.
Naître et grandir

Source: Naître et grandir magazine, January–February 2024
Research and copywriting: Maude Goyer
Scientific review: Simon du Perron, lawyer specializing in cybersecurity, privacy, and personal information protection

Photos (in order): GettyImages/SanyaSM, GettyImages/mapodile, GettyImages/dusanpetkovic, GettyImages/AaronAmat, and GettyImages/DmitryPK