My sweet 5-year-old likes to run around naked wearing only a belt, which she ties so that it has a long piece dangling out in front, a piece which she calls her fake penis. She grabs it and shakes it and goes, “fake penis fake penis!” It’s a real gas. I’ve taken a picture of her doing this. I wouldn’t post it on the Internet because I’m not a complete monster, but even if I did I would expect that some people would be outraged and some people would find it quite funny. Such is the Internet.

For this and many other reasons, I am not at all qualified to tell you which photos of your children are inappropriate to post online. Wish I could help. Sorry. Post at your own risk; guessing which way your verdict will go in the court of public opinion is a fool’s errand, but so much fun while it’s all being sorted out. Because how much you want to show about your kid’s life is a personal decision, and a fine line—a line I’d bet that most parents have crossed or will cross in their lifetime, unless you’re that one lady who went nuts making sure there were no digital traces of her kid online (only to be proved wrong immediately).

Aside from the fact that I agree that for basic safety reasons you should avoid posting pictures with a full name, your address, blood type, school name, and other people’s kids in them without permission, unless you feel sure/know they are cool with it, the rest is a gray zone and you won’t please everyone. We take our chances in this world and see how it all shakes out. This handy list of what pictures not to post over at PopSugar seems like a perfectly good start though:

Don’t post pictures of:

  • Other people’s kids
  • Where they go to school
  • Nude photos
  • Full names
  • Anything your kids might not want public

That said: That last one is pretty murky territory though, amirite? What parents are proud to post to celebrate having made a person will always always be diametrically opposed to how kids will want themselves depicted in retrospect. We’re talking about kids who will become teenagers one day, and those teenagers will rue the day you posted a picture of them wearing a One Direction onesie. You can’t win this one. Don’t even try. OK maybe don’t post pictures of anyone potty training or their actual shit? I dunno. I’m sure someone out there could convince me why that’s a worthwhile post if done correctly, which is possibly true of anything.

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Most of this makes sense under the vague umbrella of “safety,” but for the vaguer concern of who will get their hands on a photo of your kid and what will they do with it alone in a creepy basement is another issue. I’m of the mind that anyone with a will to sexualize a child or a photo of a child doesn’t need the slightest bit of help—that’s a line that is already disturbingly blurred for the pedophile, is it not? This is not at all even sorta a reason to be lax about your child’s safety, do not even try to pretend that is what I am saying.

But once we even start suggesting that how children look in pictures or how parents let their children look in innocuous pictures—when the kids are absolutely just being kids in all their goofy mimicry of the world (a world we have made, and we have brought them into)—well, it just starts making them responsible for being potentially victimized, and that means we’re already too far down the wrong road. (The right road is about safety and exercising caution).

But what if you’re a famous person whose child’s full name is well-known, whose face graces magazines, whose image in some way or another is part of your brand? What if you’re Jessica Simpson, a celebrity and paid spokesmodel, and you post a picture of your 3-year-old in a swimsuit and looking pretty cute, for the record, and people start saying it’s all sexual? Then what?

Here’s the pic:

Next came a piece at the Kansas City Star where Lisa Gutierrez tracked commenter responses to the photo on various entertainment sites and asked, “Sexy or Sassy? Jessica Simpson’s photo of 3-year-old daughter in a swimsuit draws fire.” Gutierrez writes:

What some see: Little Maxwell in a swimsuit striking a sassy little pose with her hand on her hip.

What others see: An inappropriate photo of a little girl in a swimsuit striking a provocative pose with her hand on her hip.

Comments from online readers of Us Weekly, People and E! include thoughts such as these:

“The hand on the hip pose is disturbing, it is posed, and sickos like that kind of stuff, that is my point. Parents including celebrities need to protect their children and their privacy!”

“It’s never too early to teach a girl to use her body for attention.”

“Does she really want to put her young child out there in bathing suits looking sexy ... so sad ... get a life Jessica and leave her kids OUT of the spotlight until they are old enuff to make the choice for themselves ... so starved for publicity that she will use her own children in a disgusting way to get it ...”

Enuff, you guys.

Gutierrez also included this tweet of admonishment:

One: I highly doubt the photo is all that “posed” in the sense that the kid somehow needed to be told to stand this way—our daughters are bombarded from birth with images of women and girls presented this way. My daughter has been“posing” like this as long as she could walk, and it’s not because we showed her America’s Next Top Model in lieu of bedtime stories; it’s because she exists in the world and immediately absorbed gender roles. All it takes is one cartoon, one magazine, one billboard, and so on.

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Two: Um, what’s a family album? Most people’s family albums are on online/on Facebook.

Three: Yes, there are sick people out there, but there are also people who will fetishize everything. Today’s innocent photo of you holding a coffee cup goes into tomorrow’s prurient pottery wank bank. You don’t know! It’s all stupid. Not everyone online is stupid, though, thank God. On Instagram, some commenters agreed it was pretty creepy to call the kid sexy.

“She’s adorable!” xdaniellehbinghamx wrote. “Screw the people seeing something ‘sexual’ about a 3year old. Eww. They need mental help and a hard slap in the face.”

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The kid is cute. Let it go. Leave it alone. Focus on putting your obvious abundance of free time and energy into effective child sexual abuse prevention if you are so concerned. Yes, keep kids safe. But for one thing: Most children are abused not by strangers, but someone they know. For another: Though there are no objectively proven effective strategies that work across the board to eradicate child sex abuse, experts agree that programs that focus on educating children about the risk and dangers of those who would harm them, and programs that help identify likely offenders early on, are two of the best bets. If you’re so concerned, go devote time to those efforts. You could put your money there, or you could just keep being a dick on the Internet. Your call. Being a dick does make for better Tweets, though.


Top photo via Getty.