Social media was invented for sharing baby photos, or so it can sometimes seem.
But while it’s mostly about the cute factor, there is a more sinister side. It’s called baby role-playing and it has taken off on social media platforms such as Instagram.
In baby role-playing, people steal photos of babies, and in some cases, older children, from social media sites, then make them the subject of a role-playing game.
There are even virtual ‘adoption agencies’ where role-players invent names for the babies, along with physical details, such as birth weight, and also how the child came to be in the adoption agency.
Other people will then ‘adopt’ the children so they can create their dream family. In an open role-play, known as #openrp, anyone on Instragram can then chip in with what happens to the child.
For example, underneath a (presumably) stolen photo of a newborn in intensive care with tubes coming out of its tiny body, is this story: "My mother had me trying to kill me in the hospital bathroom. She had me and left me in the toilet. Luckily I clogged the toilet ... I need a mommy."
Sometimes the comments in the role-play are about the mundane activities of caring for a baby, such as changing a nappy or telling the baby how clever and beautiful it is.
But not always. One Canadian mother discovered pictures of her five-month-old in a role-play; the comments were about how the child looked ugly and disabled.
More disturbingly, some role-plays veer into fantasies about physical and sexual abuse.
Fast Company reports that people can even request the type of baby they’d like to 'adopt', and then the ‘adoption agency’ will trawl the internet to find a photo matching the description. "Looking for a two-year-old girl with blonde hair, green eyes, and who is feisty," is one such example.
While role-playing in general is not necessarily a problem, many of the messages sent by baby role-players suggest that these people are severely disturbed or are suffering from mental illness.
But even the people who are essentially playing virtual mums and dads show an alarming disregard for the rights and dignity of children.
Baby role-playing is not the same as playing dollies or creating families in The Sims or online worlds. There’s a big difference between using a piece of plastic or pixels to create a fantasy family and using an image of a real child without permission or consent.
National Children's Commissioner Megan Mitchell says that the metadata associated with the photos might be used to cause even more harm.
"Can somebody identify that child, can they locate that child? Predators are very determined and this is a soft entry point for them," she says.
Understandably, there are people trying to stop it. Interspersed with the comments from role-players are people expressing their disgust at the practice. Others have demanded Instagram shut down role-playing accounts and ban role-playing hashtags.
While the outcry against baby role-playing may restore your faith in humanity, the sad fact is that it won’t stop it. New accounts will be created and different hashtags will emerge. So long as there are pictures of kids on the internet, there will be people who will exploit them.
And social media privacy settings don’t provide any guarantee that your child will be safe. It’s widely understood in the IT security industry that there is only one way to guarantee the safety of content on the internet: don’t put it there in the first place.
If NASA and Interpol can be hacked, and nude photos of celebrities can be stolen and shared with impunity, then overriding your Facebook or Instagram settings is a walk in the park.
The reality is that every time you post a photo of your child on the internet, there is a risk that it could be stolen and misused.
So here's the choice I've made with my children: except for a few rare cases (which I now regret), I don’t post photos of my children’s faces online. For me it is also a matter of respect. If my kids want to have a social media presence it’s their choice to make when they are old enough. It’s not mine, and it certainly isn’t someone running a virtual adoption agency.
This article first appeared on Daily Life.