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Consent, Assent, or Coercion? International Schools and Student Image Use

By Dallin Bywater
Consent, Assent, or Coercion? International Schools and Student Image Use

(Photo source: Artur Luczka from Pixabay)

I have come across a number of international schools that require guardians to sign an image-use “consent” form when enrolling their child in the school. There are various versions of this statement, but it generally resembles this: "By enrolling in [insert name of international school here], I consent for the school to publish any photographs or videos in which my child appears in school publications including advertising, websites, and social media."

It seems a school’s reasoning is simple, obtain consent from guardians so that the school has no legal issues with student photos in the future. A consent statement is admittedly the easiest and most convenient way to secure permission to use student images, especially when the school knows that the guardian is motivated during the enrollment process.

Convenience aside, there are a myriad of issues with such a statement. The first problem is that the school has framed the situation as “giving consent,” but in actuality it is not consent that the school is asking for. Consent is when a person gives permission without being pressured to do so. By including the consent statement as a requirement for enrolment, guardians may feel pressure to sign it. When permission is gained through pressure, then it could be construed as coercion, not consent.      

Another issue is that these blanket statements are made with the purpose of protecting the school, excusing itself for any improper use or storage of student images. The priority is backwards. Schools have an ethical duty to first protect the children in their care and in this digital age, that means addressing image consent.

Lastly, the requirement for parents to allow the school’s use of their child’s pictures violates a child’s right to digital privacy. If only the parent or guardian is asked for permission, the child's choice is left out of the equation.

In some of these schools, pictures of children are being posted online for the world to see. It becomes part of a child’s digital footprint, while the child has had no say in the matter. We live in a digital age where you can simply input one photo of a person in Google, and immediately find any similar photos. This technology will only improve over time. Having access to the pictures of an individual online can tell a lot about a person, where they go to school and what activities they participate in, to name a few. Putting a child at potential physical risk is only part of the issue. In the wrong hands, a child’s photo can be used for nefarious purposes, including digital kidnapping, cyberbullying, and photoshopping a child’s face for pornographic intentions. Australia’s Children’s eSafety Commissioner has estimated that innocent photos of children posted on social media and blogs account for up to half of the material found on some pedophile image-sharing sites (Battersby, 2015).

Schools do not include these “consent” statements with intention to do harm. However, the impact of these policies can be damaging, regardless of the intent. Schools are underestimating the risks and detriment that can be done by posting pictures of children on the internet. As educators, we can do better for our students. Without much effort, we can replace the misguided prioritization of advertising and publicity with student wellbeing.

The following are strategies that several schools utilize to respect the digital privacy of their students, some of which you may find fitting for your own international school context. The list is not exhaustive:

  • Allow guardians to opt out of the school posting photos of their child online.
  • Allow guardians to withdraw consent at any time.
  • Teach digital privacy at school to even the youngest learners, and model consent as part of photo-taking culture.
  • Do not allow direct face shots of children to be published or posted.
  • Do not allow photos of students on staff personal devices at school (i.e., teacher cellphones).
  • If personal devices are allowed, any photos taken with a personal device should be deleted once it has been uploaded to a school server or device.
  • Include regular professional development for staff about student image use and privacy.
  • If photo-taking is permitted, ensure that the parent and student are aware of where and how the photo will be used.
  • Names should not be included with photos.
  • Only images where children are in suitable clothing should be used.

In this age of information, it is no longer acceptable for school leaders to be naive to the issue of student digital privacy. Technology is too advanced to simply include a caveat in the policy that a student’s full name will not be published with pictures, and then feign that this will protect students. In a show of authentic care for child wellbeing, we must more thoroughly safeguard the digital lives of students through our words, policies, and our actions.

Dallin Bywater is an international school counselor on hiatus. 

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