Throughout her kids’ childhoods, one mum-of-three posted pictures of her children on Facebook, thinking she was sharing only with friends and family. So imagine her horror when she found some of the images of her two young daughters and 9-month-old son on pornography sites.
Brittany Champagne, a mom in Riverton, Utah, came across photos of her 8-year-old daughter attached to a fake Instagram profile last week.
“While I was scrolling to find people I might know, I found someone who had a picture of my daughter as her profile picture,” Champagne tells Yahoo Parenting.
The anonymous user had taken a number of Champagne’s Facebook photos, posted them on Instagram, and added hashtags to the photos that were connected to porn sites.
Upon further digging, Champagne found photos of her kids on those sites.
“We’ve had the photos pulled down from over 20 sites, but they’re on even more where I couldn’t find a way to get them down,” she says.
There’s no way to know for sure who stole Champagne’s photos, she says. She thinks a friend’s Facebook account was hacked, and the hacker stole her photos. But it could have been a stranger stealing from her account, too.
“I found out after this happened that my pictures weren’t as private as I thought they were, I guess my settings weren’t right,” she says. “It’s humiliating.”
But confusion around social media privacy settings isn’t unusual, and with frequent privacy updates on sites like Facebook, it’s important that parents check their settings regularly, says Denise DeRosa, program manager for Good Digital Parenting at the Family Online Safety Institute.
“Everyone once in a while it’s a good idea to do a privacy checkup,” she tells Yahoo Parenting.
“And when you are posting pictures of your children, you may want to limit it further. You can pick the specific audience you want to see a certain photo, or you can create a group within your friends. I have a family group on Facebook and I share pictures of my children only with that group.”
If you’ve recently shared something publicly – like a link to an online article – you should also remember to revert your Facebook sharing settings the next time you post a photo of your kids, DeRosa points out.
“The privacy will default to whatever you chose last time,” she says. Instagram, by default, is public, but parents can take steps to control visibility there too.
Still, even when the person doing the sharing has taken all the right privacy measures, it’s easy for Facebook photos to become public.
“Your account might be secure, but everyone else’s around you has to be as well,” Robert Neivert, COO of the online privacy company Private.me, tells Yahoo Parenting.
“If you share a photo with family, and then, say, your mother shares it and she isn’t private, she is effectively making your photo public.” The same can happen if someone with public settings likes a photo, Neivert says.
“It’s very easy to accidentally make things public on Facebook or cloud accounts like Dropbox or other picture-sharing sites.”
Since you can’t always control the life of a photo – a well-meaning aunt might want to share baby photos with her friends and suddenly the picture is everywhere – Neivert cautions to choose photos wisely.
To start, don’t post any pictures with sensitive material. “There a huge number of internet crawlers looking for photos that contain certain inappropriate material,” he says, referring to internet programs that flag photos that contain certain body parts, for example.
These crawlers are usually used for good, so that sites like Instagram can catch pornographic images on the sites and take them down. “But the same filter that many sites use to prevent pornography, can be reversed. The very filters we develop to prevent porn are the ones that some sites might use to find that material.”
Which is to say, don’t post anything that might be sensitive – like photos of kids in the bathtub, no matter how cute you might think it is. “When you look at images, you have to decide, ‘If this was public would it be catastrophic? Is it worth sharing?’ In the past, would you have posted this on a billboard?” Neivert says.
“Most of your photos are probably okay, but you have to decide for yourself, because Facebook is not a great place to keep secrets.”
Still, Champagne says the photos she posted weren’t racy. “They’re pictures of my girls wearing their backpacks, or hanging out together on the couch,” she says of the images of her daughters, who are 8 and 9 years old. “These sites are adding context, implying that they are girlfriends and that their relationship is more than it is, and adding sexual hashtags.”
Champagne says the incident has left her plagued with guilt and paranoia. “What other things have I posted unknowingly?” she says. “I can’t even imagine the day I’m going to have to tell them about this.”
Ultimately, Champagne says the entire experience has been a personal violation. “Of course I’m disgusted when I see any child involved in pornography, but when it’s your own and you were the one to post the photos, the amount of guilt that you feel… I can’t imagine feeling more violated,” she says “I would feel less violated if it were me in the photos.”
As she continues trying to get photos of her girls pulled offline, Champagne says she doesn’t plan to encounter this problem again. “I won’t be posting any more photos,” she says.