When the #Joke Goes Too Far

A slice of cheese is thrown in a baby’s face. A father tells his children that he’s already eaten all their Hallowe’en candies. In alarming numbers, similar videos are showing up all over the internet. These pranks may seem harmless, but they raise important ethical and legal issues. When does the joke become unfunny?

By Marie Bernier

In 2020, just before students returned to school, the #New Teacher Challenge showed up on the social media site TikTok (690 million users in July 2020). The challenge’s concept is simple: a parent fakes a videoconference call with a child’s so-called future teacher. When the child comes over to meet the fake teacher, they’re shown a photo of an unknown face, perhaps one worthy of a terrible mug shot; or maybe the face of a severely disabled person. The image is meant to surprise and shock.

And it does. Reactions by many of the children subjected to this #New Teacher Challenge range from blank stares to protests to tears.

It’s web content tailor-made to generate hits. It also makes many observers uneasy.

A Very Unfunny Message: Psychologist Nadia Gagnier argues: “A parent’s role is to provide a sense of security. When the joke makes a child uncomfortable, meaning it stresses the child out, it creates an unhealthy contradiction.”

That’s not counting on the fact that a lot of children are already stressed by the approach of a new school year, says Dr. Gagnier. Children’s adaptability is already under enough strain these days, thanks to the pandemic.

But what is most shocking about the #New Teacher Challenge is its message that someone’s physical appearance can be humour material. And that using someone’s photo over the internet without their approval is just fine. “How can we get the message through to children that bullying is wrong when adults do it?” points out Nelly Brière, who writes and consults on digital communication and social media.

The American conference speaker Lizzie Vélasquez, who suffers from a rare congenital disease, saw a photo of her own face used during one of these challenges. On several platforms, she made this emotional written appeal: “If you’re an adult and you have a small human being in your life, I beg of you, don’t show them that it’s normal to be afraid of someone who doesn’t resemble them. We are human and we have feelings.”

Hidden Risks: Pictures and videos of children are all over the internet. The practice even has a name: sharenting, a blend of “sharing” and “parenting.” The practice is so common that by 2010, it was estimated that 80% of Canadians two years of age and under were already present on the web.

This seemingly harmless practice can be subject to abuse. In 2019, Option Consommateurs, a Montreal-based consumer watchdog group, released a report on parenting in the digital age. Risks cited included: bullying and intimidation; the mining of photos by third parties for juvenile pornography sites; and identity theft.

The British bank Barclay’s predicts that “sharenting” could be responsible for as many as 7 million identity thefts a year by 2030.

“Parents don’t suspect how much information can be revealed just by posting, in good faith, a back-to-school photo,” warns Alexandre Plourde, an analyst and lawyer at Option Consommateurs. From a single classic snapshot taken in front of a school, even a slightly resourceful person can figure out the child’s school, their neighborhood, their comings and goings…

In short, when it comes to children and the web, caution should be the order of the day says Option Consommateurs. To that end, they’ve produced a series of recommendations for today’s 2.0 parents. They include:

  • Limit the number of times you post something about your child, and take time to reflect before you do post;
  • Never reveal a child’s name, birthdate or address;
  • Avoid all photos showing partial or complete nudity;
  • Show your child everything that’s been posted about them;
  • Delete postings if your child asks it;
  • Once they hit age seven, ask their consent before posting anything about them;
  • Using confidentiality parameters, restrict access to anything you post about your child.

First published in Reflet de Société magazine, vol. 29, no. 3, April 2021, pages 6 – 8

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