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'Sharenting': How to safeguard your kids' personal information on social media

Most kids in America have an online presence by their second birthday. Here's how to keep their identities safe on social media.
Image: Are you \"sharenting\" too much?
Stephanie Ruhle says she found multiple social media accounts impersonating her and posting photos of her kids. Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; Getty Images

Remember life before social media? Children today certainly don’t. They likely don’t even remember the first time their photo was posted on a social media site. That’s because many kids are making their Facebook debuts before their first words — some even popping up on an Instagram feed before they’ve even left the hospital. As of 2010, 93 percent of children in the United States have an online presence by their second birthday.

But these adorable baby pictures and family photo shoots could subject your family to more than just likes and comments. Oversharing details about your children could increase their likelihood of identity theft and fraud, and put your family’s safety at risk.

MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle, who delves into the power and pitfalls of social media this week on her new podcast, "Modern Ruhles", has experienced social media identity fraud first hand. “I’ve stumbled upon multiple accounts impersonating me, posting photos of my kids that I’ve made public on my own Instagram account. It’s scary,” she says. “It’s definitely encouraged me to be more careful about the pictures I do share.”

>> Listen in to this week's episode of Modern Ruhles

“But social media is such a powerful tool,” Ruhle explains. “It can connect people far and wide in unprecedented ways, simply with the click of a button. But we must use it wisely.” Is there a safe way to share all of those cute pictures of your children without risking the safety of those closest to you? Experts say yes — here are five tips to keep in mind:

1. Think before you post

Caroline Knorr, senior parenting editor at Common Sense Media, notes that “sharenting” isn’t the problem — it’s how we do it. “It’s not wrong to share pictures of your kids or updates about your family. But parents should be careful about it and do it really mindfully — think before you post. If you have any doubt just don’t do it, or post to a very limited audience.”

It may seem like a given, but she urges parents to make sure their social media accounts are set to private. Knorr highlights that users often have to opt-in to this setting. “Most social media is public by default. This is a problem — it puts the burden on the user to go in and change it.”

2. Keep the details in your posts and photos vague

Just because sharing your newborn’s name and birth date has become common practice doesn’t mean it’s the safest or smartest one. Social media has made it easier than ever for online fraudsters to mine the information they need to steal one’s identity. Knorr gives a timely example: the beginning of the school year. “A lot of parents like to take pictures of their child in their school uniform, in front of the school sign. You’ve just given away details that could allow someone with bad intentions to find you or find your kid.”

Knorr advises parents to be more cautious in their posting. “You want to make sure you’re not accidentally revealing personally identifiable information,” she says. Omitting details like your child’s full name, date of birth and their school is critical.

3. Limit your audience

Keep your posts targeted. That way, those viewing your content are vetted by you and genuinely interested in the post. “Parents can share posts with a really small audience,” Knorr told me. “If you are on Facebook with your parents and your in-laws, you can share a photo or an update about your child’s first day of school, or whatever it may be, with just them.”

Many parents have resorted to an alternative strategy: creating separate accounts to house their favorite family and kid photos. A survey found that as of 2014, close to 40 percent of mothers between 18 and 34 years old created social media accounts for their babies prior to their first birthday. New Jersey mom Jessica has a separate Instagram account to post photos of her 6-month-old son. “We all have those extra people on our accounts ... but I didn't want people like that seeing my son,” she says. That inspired her to create an account for her child. “I love with the safety settings I can control who can follow [his account]. I have control over who can really see my son. That makes me feel safe.”

4. Explore alternative platforms

Ruhle said her experience with identity theft encouraged her to seek out an alternative method to share photos. “I’m a big fan of shared photo albums on my iPhone. I invite the contacts I want to view the photos to the album, and they can see an entire collection of memories I’ve curated for them.” She still enjoys posting photos on her social media accounts, but recommends the shared albums as a much more secure platform to use with close contacts.

If you are going to use a social media platform, creating a private group is a great way to curate the friends and followers viewing your content. Knorr says establishing an invitation-only group limits the number of people who see the post and increases the interest among those viewers.

5. Have your own social media policy (and keep it handy)

Posting habits vary from person to person. “Everyone has a different idea of what’s OK to share and what’s not OK. It’s very personal and very individual,” says Knorr. That’s why it’s helpful to clearly define your personal policy around sharing photos of your children. Knorr even suggests parents write it down: “If you’re going to have your child under someone else’s care — whether it is an ex, or a babysitter or nanny — I would be very explicit with them about what you are or are not comfortable with.”

More from Stephanie Ruhle and Julie Brown

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