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Posted on Sun, Oct 4, 2009 : 6:40 a.m.

Parents, safety advocates debate risk of publishing photos of children

By Jen Eyer


Cynthia Bostwick posts photos of her son, Ben, on her blog. She says she doesn't understand the level of fear many parents have. Photo courtesy of Cynthia Bostwick

When Katie Moon took over as president of MOMS Club of Ann Arbor, she thought the group could use a Web site.

But when she saw the international group's strict Web site guidelines — no publishing meeting times or locations, no contact names, preferably no photos but if so, definitely don't identify people — she decided it wasn't worth the effort. What's more, it made her question her own approach to sharing information online.

"I thought, would someone say, 'Oh, they're meeting at a park. I think I'll go scope out the kids to see who I can kidnap,'" Moon said. "Is there proof that someone would do that? And what is the difference between me doing a Web site or putting flyers around town?"

At a time when an estimated eight million women write "mommy blogs" about their families, and millions of parents are using Facebook and personal Web sites to share photos and stories with far-flung friends and relatives, many Internet safety organizations are warning parents against doing just that.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, for example, tells new parents not to put photos of their newborns on Web sites — or even put birth announcements in the newspaper. They also warn parents that children should appear only in group shots in the newspaper, and never be identified by name.

But some local and national child safety advocates say the warnings are overblown and unnecessary.

"The No. 1 caveat you always hear is that photos are OK, but never put any personal information on the Internet because you will immediately be hunted down and beheaded — of course that's after the rape," said Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry. "But the truth about giving personal information is that it doesn't lead to a rise in abductions. It's as unrisky as standing next to a tree and hoping it doesn't fall on you."

Washtenaw County Sheriff's Commander Dieter Heren says he's not aware of any cases of young children being abducted by a predator who tracked them down from a photo online.

"If a predator sees a photo of Johnny Smith from Saline on the Internet, and then goes to the school and waits outside and looks for him — could that happen? Yes. Am I aware of it happening? No," Heren said.

According to U.S. Department of Justice data, there are about 115 "stereotypical kidnappings" a year, in which a child is taken by a stranger, detained overnight, transported at least 50 miles, held for ransom or abducted with intent to keep the child permanently, or killed. About 46 of those are killed. In a country with 70 million children, that's a rate of about .00005 percent.

An additional 21,000 children — mostly teenagers — per year are abducted by strangers for short amounts of time and return home.

Skenazy points out that even though stranger kidnapping is extremely rare, it seems like it happens all the time, because every case is so heavily covered by the media.

"We are getting indoctrinated with fear," Skenazy said.

But Nancy McBride, national safety director for the NCMEC, said they are not trying to promote fear, adding that they don't know whether predators are using online photos to track down children.

"We're just asking parents to be cautious," McBride said.

Many parents have heard that warning and are heeding it.

Suzanne Muenz, of Ann Arbor, says her father-in-law has been posting photos of her children — his grandchildren — on his personal Web site for years, and she just asks that he not post their names or where they live.

"You hear every day in the media terrible things that happen to children, and you never know how it is that these people find their victims," Muenz said. "But at the same time, if you believe everything that you've heard, you'd never leave the house."

Years ago, Sara Brintnall of Ann Arbor started a family blog. She posted photos regularly until, one day, someone she didn't know posted a comment that she had a "beautiful family."

"That really surprised me," Brintnall said. "I couldn't imagine there would be anyone out there just surfing people's blogs, because it's not something I would do."

She became concerned that she might have mentioned where they live, and she shut down the blog. Now she posts photos only on her Facebook page, which she has set to the tightest security level — meaning only her Facebook "friends" can see the photos.

Parents who do post photos of their children often feel they have to justify themselves, or be judged.

Cynthia Bostwick started her blog as a way to keep in touch with friends when she and her son, then 2 years old, moved to Ann Arbor. She posted under her own name, and used her son's real name and included photos of him — and still does. Bostwick said just as she wants her neighbors to know her real name, she also wants her online neighbors to know who she is.

But she soon noticed that many bloggers use anonymous names and don't show pictures of their children's faces.

"I just don't see why the fear is there," Bostwick said. "Anybody can stalk you, but you still have the same ability to lock your door, turn off the computer, and call the police."

The debate rages all over the Web, on parenting blogs, news sites and general discussion boards.

But Heren said parents should be more concerned about their children's own activity online, in chat rooms and on social networking sites, because that's where predators look for children.

"I'm not worried about my kids' names being in the paper, corresponding with school events," Heren said.

If parents are posting photos of their children online, and the kids are aware of it, that also provides a good opportunity to tell kids how to do it safely, says Washtenaw County Sheriff's Detective Mike Babycz.

"I don't think it's reasonable to say never do it, if it's important to you," Babycz said. "Just try to avoid posting specific location information, like, 'We come to this McDonald's every day.'"

When parents try to eliminate every possible risk, no matter how miniscule, that has negative effects of its own, says Hara Marano, editor-at-large of Psychology Today and author of A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting.

"They're turning their kids into anxious little creatures. That's where my book started; I started looking at why college kids were having breakdowns in record numbers," Marano said. "These kids have no coping skills, because their parents do everything for them. You overprotect, and there are real costs."

Related story:
• Privacy also a concern with online photos of children

Jen Eyer is on the Community Team at She can be reached at 734-623-2577 or, or you can visit her at 301 East Liberty.


Amber Moore, Inrternet Safety Program Coordinator

Thu, Oct 8, 2009 : 10:38 a.m.

The Washtenaw Area Council for Children is a great resource for Internet Safety information. You can email us at, or call (734)434-4215 for more information.

Liz Margolis

Mon, Oct 5, 2009 : 10:18 a.m.

Here are the AAPS guidelines for student information, images and work posted on district and/or school websites... Student Information Guideines for Web Site Postings Student photos and work may appear on district pages so long as the following stipulations are followed to maintain the privacy and safety of our students: Parental permission: Each Fall, the school offices will send the District Opt-Out form to all childrens homes; parents wishing to deny permission to publish their students work/photo/etc. on the web site will sign the form and return it to the school office. It is the responsibility of site creators to verify that permission to publish has not been denied by the parents of a student. Group photos of 3 or more students are encouraged Student Names: oK-8: First names ONLY are allowed on K-8 web sites, and they may never accompany photos of students o9-12: First name and last name are allowed on high school sites, but they may not accompany photos. In the case of a team photo, names may accompany the photo but should not correspond to the order in the picture (instead, put names in alphabetical order, and do not include any uniform numbers in the listing.) When deciding to use any photos of students on the site, please use your best judgement; one must remember that a school web site is a global medium, and we cannot control who can or cannot access our pages, and how they might use the information they find on those pages. Keep these factors in mind when deciding whether to use a photo of students on the site.

Patrick Haggood

Mon, Oct 5, 2009 : 8:45 a.m.

I actually got hit by the other side of this debate; I was preparing a powerpoint for storytime at church and needed lots of smiling children so I hit Creative Commons for some pics; I ended up on a few flickr feeds and began downloading. Soon after I got a message asking me about my intent for the pics. The messages went back and forth for a few days until I could assure the guy (a reverend somewhere in S. America if I recall) I wasn't doing anything nefarious. That episode freaked me out so much that now I hit the licensed photo sites and purchase any pics I need; even for non-commercial stuff.

Some Guy in 734

Mon, Oct 5, 2009 : 8:13 a.m.

Compare and contrast: In the early 40s, the Ann Arbor News printed a picture of some Burns Park neighborhood kids playing, including my father. The caption didn't say that he was Bobby Someguy, 8, of Ann Arbor, oh no. It actually gave his home address.


Sun, Oct 4, 2009 : 10:03 p.m.

Thanks for putting this issue into proper perspective. The "We are getting indoctrinated with fear," Skenazy said. and having it contrasted with "Free Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry" was great.


Sun, Oct 4, 2009 : 12:56 p.m.

How many people will put the first or last name on the back of a piece of clothing one of your kids wears? When I was growing up, doing so was a big no no. We can split hairs about posting just a photo versus posting a photo that includes personal information. While the sheriff cannot recall a case that was driven by "just a photo" this same sheriff presumably works for a department that has an online predator unit, trying to track down people who do mean harm to kids - why post anything that would make it even the slightest bit easier for one of those kooks to locate/find your child? This discussion doesn't need to be fear-driven - it's about parents making decisions they think are wise and prudent to help keep their kids safe, online and offline. If I decide the pictures of my kids need to come down, there's no debate. I make that decision, as do the parents who decide they have no problem posting pictures/info about their families online.

Hans Masing

Sun, Oct 4, 2009 : 12:30 p.m.

My feelings are pretty straightforward. The more exposure my kids get online, the less likely that they will be able to simply 'disappear' in the 0.000005% chance that they are abducted. I personally believe that the whole culture of fear that has been perpetuated is amazingly unfortunate. We live in the safest time ever for children, and we should celebrate that.

Sam Nead

Sun, Oct 4, 2009 : 10:55 a.m.

My wife's is a bit more sensitive to this than I am. My approach is that the creeps are opportunistic and will be at your local playground whether you post your schedule and kids picture or not. When your child's in public, don't create the opportunity anywhere at anytime by leaving them unattended and more importantly teaching them the basics like my parents did with me; "Don't ever go anywhere with a stranger". *Not* posting pictures is not going to stop the perp from doing that which possesses them. There is a fine line between being protective and harboring feelings of paranoia. People should be more concerned about posting family schedules online ("can't wait for our trip to Cancun on Sunday") showing that they will be away from home. You're more susceptible to a break-in than having your child abducted. One last thought, don't forget you can always set privacy features on many of the photo-sharing websites for only registered members who you pre-approve. In this way you can share with family and friends while keeping photos out of a public blog.

David Jesse

Sun, Oct 4, 2009 : 10:37 a.m.

We also work with the schools when we're in classrooms to make sure the kids we shoot have parental permissions to be in the paper. All the local schools keep lists of students we, or other media, can't photograph and share it with us when visit a school.


Sun, Oct 4, 2009 : 10:17 a.m.

this is a great issue and i'm interested in what the policy on this is, as i've noticed in the past that you've posted many shots (there's a whole flickr gallery in fact) of children at library events. this includes both group shots of the crowd and closeups of individual kids. what's the decision-making process in choosing to post these images, given that so many parents (as noted in this article) have concerns about their child's image online?


Sun, Oct 4, 2009 : 10:05 a.m.

I have a Flickr acct, and posted pics there for relatives who did not have facebook. I never use the kids names, nor our location. I was horrified to see that a pic of my son in his bathing suit had over 50 views, while other ones had the usual 2 to 5. I removed it ASAP. I still post the kids pics on FB, but only allow Friends to view them. I am not going to let FEAR rule my entire life. I am a low key Helicopter Mom, I watch closely from afar.


Sun, Oct 4, 2009 : 9:42 a.m.

I rarely post pictures of my child online, not so much out of fear, but out of respect for his privacy. I don't think I would have liked all my childhood memories archived online, and I think what he shares (eventually) is really up to him.