Parents, safety advocates debate risk of publishing photos of children
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."
â€¢ Privacy also a concern with online photos of children
Jen Eyer is on the Community Team at AnnArbor.com. She can be reached at 734-623-2577 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit her at 301 East Liberty.