Pause before posting back-to-school pics on social media

August 25, 2022

Parents everywhere try to capture the perfect photo of their children for their first day back to school, then post it on social media. While it may seem harmless, these innocuous pictures could lead to a myriad of privacy consequences for parents, says Byron Lowens, a research fellow in the School of Information at the University of Michigan.

Byron Lowens
Byron Lowens

Lowens, whose research focuses on privacy, human-computer interaction, usable privacy, and security, said that predators can use information from photos to target victims, especially children. 

Why would a cute photo of the back-to-school moment be problematic? 

The photo itself presents less of a concern, but the information in the photo is what poses the risk. For example, if parents are taking pictures of their child at home or in the neighborhood, a hacker or predator may be able to discover the home’s location by pieces of information stored in the background. Hackers may also be able to use landmarks in the background to figure out where the child may catch the bus or be dropped off after school. 

What else should parents keep in mind? 

It might not be safe to post the child’s name, grade level, or school. This presents hackers with the information they can leverage to answer security questions on personal and financial accounts. For example, if a parent uses their child’s birth year as a security question, a hacker could use the simple information from the social media post to hack into an account. Child predators could also use personal information from a picture to show up at the school and request to pick up the child based on the personal information gathered from social media. 

Parents should check the location settings to ensure that the location is not attached to the photograph. 

How concerned should teens or family members be if they share their loved ones’ photos? 

I think this is a concern that the sharer is not really aware of. Photos shared on social media can expose rich information about the individuals in the photo, of which some of that information can be considered sensitive. If teens/young adults or other family members are sharing photos of their friends or loved ones online, they are exposing them privacy risks without even knowing. Privacy leaks to personal information can occur based on information in the photo, as well as if privacy settings are not configured to reduce privacy threats.  Before sharing anyone’s photos, consent should be obtained from either the person themselves or a parent or guardian. Individuals may also consider obfuscating sensitive information in the photo (e.g., background landmarks, name tags, location) that may cause threats to privacy. It’s also important for users to review their privacy settings and adjust them for more control over personal information if needed. 

Do you have any other suggestions or tips?

If friends or family are sharing photos online, it is important to know the intended audience the picture is being shared with. 

Also, make sure the privacy settings are configured appropriately. It would be best if photos, especially of children, are only shared with close friends and family members, but not with the public. Some social media sites provide this option in privacy settings. I recommend that social media users periodically review their privacy settings to be informed of how their data is being shared.