NEW YORK (MainStreet) — If you're like most people on social media, you probably see adorable pictures of babies pop up in your feed all the time, put there by proud friends and family. If you're a parent, chances are you may upload photos of your own beautiful brood – but just because sharing your child's image is an everyday occurrence doesn't mean it's safe.
Why do some parents shield their children from the social media glare?
Because anytime you post anything on social media, you're losing a little bit of control over what happens to that image, clinical psychologist Barbara Greenberg says. Some people aren't willing to take that risk.
"There are people out there who are bad," Greenberg says. "There are stalkers and malicious people who can take your pictures and put them on sites where heads end up on other people's bodies … socially isolated people who spend all day on Facebook stalking people, who get turned on by children."
"This is the world we live in," she says. "As a parent you have to think about how much you're going to post."
The problem in years to come
There's another concern: You need to make sure that whatever images or anecdotes you post are things your children will feel comfortable with later in life, says Adriana Sanford, Lincoln Professor of global corporate compliance and ethics at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University.
"I am cautious with what I post, because I believe at some point later in life it may come back up. You're making decisions now for your children," she says.
Whether or not you realize it, you're setting up a digital trail for your children that can last throughout their lifetime, Greenberg says. More importantly, you're doing it without their permission.
"What is your child going to think of what you posted when they are 13 or 14? If you post a picture of them looking chubby or picking their nose, it could set them up for bullying," she says. "What's considered cute at age 2 is not considered cute at 16."
Children can be very sensitive about their appearance during their tween years. If you post photos of your child during an "ugly duckling" phase, you could be setting them up for self-esteem issues in future.
"Of course you think they're beautiful- you always will. But one day they may look back and say, 'Oh, I was fat,' or 'Oh, I was ugly.' They're going to see it differently than you. And instead of those pictures being tucked away in the family photo album, they're on display for all their friends to see," Greenberg says.
Also, be careful not to "brand" your child. If you continually post pictures of them clinging to you or crying with captions like, "He's so cranky," or "She's so shy," there's a chance you could be shaping your child's perception of themselves.
"You may be raising someone who as an adult says, 'Oh, I'm shy because I've always been shy,' because you put that label on them from birth," she says. "You don't want to post anything that could influence your child's self-perception."
The next time you log on to social media, try to think about what's best for your child, Greenberg encourages, not you.
"'Everybody's doing it' is never a good reason to post something. There may be pressure to show off your baby, but you don't have to join that club. It's always your decision," she says.
Privacy setting pluses
If you opt for privacy, it'll take some work.
First, whenever you post pictures of your child, make sure to turn off the geo-tagging feature so people can't see where you are, says Adam Levin, chairman and co-founder of Credit.com.
"As much as it flies in the face Facebook's show-it-all culture, avoid posting information that could help a stalker, kidnapper or identity thief locate your child-playgrounds, schools, sports facilities, pictures that make it possible to find your home," he says.
Names and nicknames should be off-limits, too.
"It's easy enough to tell your friends and family that you avoid identifying your child online," Levin says.
The problem with privacy settings
You can have the most secure password and the strictest privacy settings in the world, but once you share your pictures with others, it's their privacy settings you need to worry about.
"Whether or not you should post pictures of your children comes down to how much you actually know about what you're putting out there," says Sanford. "Unfortunately, it's impossible to know what kind of privacy settings your friends and family have."
A lot of grandparents who have only recently discovered social media are "just pushing buttons," Sanford says.
"They're so excited about the system, so excited about seeing their grandchildren, but they don't have the level of comfort or sophistication necessary to stay protected. They assume it's all safe, but they have no idea who is seeing their posts," she says.
Don't be afraid to check in on your mom and dad's privacy settings before you share pictures of your children with them, Greenberg says.
"Sit down with them and give them a tutorial, or have them grab any teenager they know who can teach them," she says. "Don't share anything with them, and don't let them post anything until they figure it out."
Grandparents aren't the only problem. If you haven't gone through your "friends" or "followers" list in a few years, it's time to do some housecleaning.
"If you have friends you don't know, don't remember or haven't seen since college, you need to think about getting rid of some of them," Greenberg says. "If you wouldn't mail them a picture of your child, then you shouldn't be sharing those pictures with them on social media."
Even if you feel confident you're sharing securely, keep in mind that it's still possible to get hacked.
"Before you post anything, ask yourself, 'If I get hacked and this gets out, would I want it out there?'" Sanford says. "It's not just friends and family who may be viewing those pictures."
— By Kathryn Tuggle for MainStreet