For Jessica Gwozdz, a professional photographer and mother of two, Flickr was a blessing. It allowed her to share photos of her children, Grace and Henry, with distant, tech-averse relatives for whom a username and password would have been too great an obstacle. It even allowed potential clients to freely browse her gallery.
Then a friend sent her an e-mail message with the kind of subject line no parent cares to read: “Oh no — it’s Gracie.”
The message contained a link to Orkut, a social networking site popular in Brazil. Someone had created a fake profile, using headshots of Mrs. Gwozdz’s 4-year-old daughter.
“They gave her a fake name, Melodie Cuthbert, and a relationship status that said she was interested in making friends and dating men,” Mrs. Gwozdz recalled in a recent telephone interview. Other Orkut members had given the profile a “sexy” rating of two and a half hearts.
The discovery turned out to be little more than a gut-churning prank. According to a Flickr spokeswoman, young teenage girls in Brazil were copying children’s pictures from the photo-sharing site to create “paper doll” profiles, then giving each other “sexy” ratings depending on the quality of their work.
Mrs. Gwozdz contacted Flickr and Orkut, which deleted the profiles. And Mrs. Gwozdz has now taken advantage of Flickr’s privacy settings. But to this day she occasionally gets e-mail messages to her Flickr account from strangers saying things like “family very beautiful” and “I would ask you, let me use the photos of his daughter.”
Such is the stuff of parents’ nightmares in the social networking age, when Facebook is rapidly taking the place of the baby book. Young parents are flooding photo-sharing and social networking sites — Snapfish, Twitter, YouTube, even Match.com — with images of their children dancing, singing and bathing.
Not everyone is sure that all that sharing is such a good idea. Several groups on Facebook rail against people posting children’s photos. On Parenting.com, the editor, Susan Kane, says the debate “is constantly going on.” And on blogs, school listservs and at kitchen tables, the argument flares: should young children’s photos be shared online?
Just consider these recent postings on UrbanBaby.com and Momversation.com, two discussion sites for young mothers:
“You should not have any photos of your children on the Internet at all!”
“They’re 3 years old, it’s not that big a deal.”
“If you want to post pictures of my kids online, you’d better ask me first (so I can say no!)”
“Why were they naked?”
Like other parental debates — whether to spank or when to let children travel alone — the issue tends to divide parents into two familiar camps: the vigilant and the laissez-faire. Some parents want to protect their children from what is unlikely but still tragically possible. Others say children will do best when learning to live with the realities of the Web.
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Squashed in the middle are parents who impose their own haphazard rules: Only post on password-protected sites. Leave out names. Yes to Flickr, no to YouTube. And for heaven’s sake, no bathtub photos.
Parents are grappling with what is safe, and what fears are irrational. As with most debates about child safety, the risks are not as severe as many imagine. But neither is posting photos online as safe as many assume.
Elizabeth Hunter, a blogger from Arlington, Mass., frequently posts pictures of her 2-year-old daughter on her site. To her, it’s a matter of living with the reality of the Web.
“Hundreds of kids die in swimming pools every year, but we don’t shut down all the pools,” she said. “We teach kids how to swim.”
“I don’t put up pictures of her completely naked or ones that show her genitalia, obviously, but I have shown pictures of her in the bathtub,” she added. “Sure, people can probably figure out where she is and stalk her, but child abductions from strangers are such strange occurrences, really.”
Rebecca Woolf, a Los Angeles-based writer, uses her children’s real names on her site, and shows their faces. But she said in an interview, “I wouldn’t even post a picture of my son from behind if he were naked.”
It’s not always easy to know what’s the right thing to do. “I feel conflicted about it,” she said. “People have said to me, ‘Oh, you’re exploiting your kids.’ But the medium is so new, none of us know what is going to happen.”
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