Bring on the photo consent debate – our kids will emerge the winners

Did you catch the Safer Internet Day controversy over our suggestion that parents ask their toddlers for permission to take and share their photo? Wow, did we get the nation talking! And that was a great outcome on a day when eSafety was urging Australians to start the chat about online safety with their families, students, colleagues and communities. 

The debate was prompted by the launch of the eSafety Early Years booklet offering practical advice for parents and carers of children under 5, including this:

“It may seem silly to ask permission from a 2-year-old, particularly as children can’t legally give consent to share their image. But the point is to model consent and respectful data sharing practices. This practice will come in handy when they start to share photos online.”

Asking a toddler for permission to take their photo – isn’t that going too far??? Some media commentators would have you believe it’s an outrageous suggestion, but in their rush for a howling headline they missed the point of the advice.

By talking to our children about online safety early and often we lay the foundations for safer online experiences as they grow older.

And I can tell you, as eSafety Commissioner, I see every day just how important that is. Most Australians would be horrified to know how damaged many children and young people are by online abuse: by photos that humiliate them being spread by cyberbullies, by real or fake nudes being used to blackmail them, by ill-judged posts turning away potential friends and employers, by paedophile rings sharing images that retraumatise victims with every new viewing.

Ensuring eSafety’s advice is evidence based 

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse brought home to all of us the need to arm our most vulnerable Australians with the confidence to say ‘no’, including to people who want to take photos or videos of them. And when today’s toddler becomes a pre-teen we want them to know instinctively that they should ask before they take and share photos and videos of others.

So, we don’t apologise for our advice but we are happy to contextualise it and demonstrate the expert guidance behind it. Our Early Years resources are based on evidence gathered from Australian and international best practice, from a national parent survey, from focus groups with families and early childhood educators, and from our own research (including our reports on parenting in the digital age and digital parenting). 

We have also worked closely with leading experts to ensure our resources are practical, relevant and engaging. We have been consulting with Professor Susan Edwards, Director of Early Childhood Futures at Australian Catholic University, and we have been collaborating with Early Childhood Australia to develop professional learning modules for early childhood educators.

Parents, carers and educators often tell us they want to know how to encourage online safety without scaring young children about all the bad things that can happen. So we offer very practical advice on how to start the chat in age-appropriate ways. The photo suggestion is not about asking for permission every single time you take or post an image of your child, the idea is to make the most of opportunities to model consent as you explore and play alongside them. 

The eSafety Early Years program is based on four simple messages that help children develop online safety awareness and habits they can take to school and beyond: be safe, be kind, ask for help and make good choices. 

All of us, no matter what age, can work together for a better internet by adopting those habits and encouraging them in others.

How to have a barbeque stopping conversation 

It’s fabulous that on Safer Internet Day we stimulated a national conversation that played out in extensive media coverage – we had more than 100 mentions across print, radio and television, reaching millions of Australians from dawn to dusk and into the next day.

The photo consent debate turned into the proverbial water cooler conversation. It also led to discussions about parents over-sharing pictures of their children on social media, known as ‘sharenting’ – this creates a digital footprint that will follow each child into adulthood and right throughout their lives. 

At eSafety we are happy for these topics to be real barbeque stoppers. By getting people debating the best ways to manage the online safety of children, we are ensuring parents and carers think carefully before handing their kids a device that can be connected to the internet. 

This Safer Internet Day showed the groundswell of support for eSafety’s awareness raising efforts. More than 1500 Champions helped us spread the word, starting the online safety chat in homes, schools, sports clubs, workplaces and communities. That was three times as many supporters as last year. 

All three SID hashtags #SID2020, #eSafetySID and #SaferInternetDay trended in the top 10 on Twitter, while a posse of politicians jostled for photo ops at the official launch at Parliament House in Canberra. The Prime Minister even sent out a video message encouraging all Australians to start the chat about online safety.

A whopping 33,000 primary school students joined our Virtual Classrooms and more than 1,500 parents and carers registered for eSafety webinars over the week.

And the Early Years booklet? Over 2,000 website visitors viewed it and almost 600 downloaded it from our national online safety hub. That’s in addition to 22,000 copies being sent to Early Learning Services across Australia. 

So, I’m declaring Safer Internet Day a huge success.

We measure that success by getting people to stop, think, engage – and, more importantly, to ACT. Real, long-term behavioural change is what we aspire to, and we thank all eSafety’s supporters for helping us achieve such great outcomes!


Prime Minister Scott Morrison urges parents to start the chat about online safety