Children’s agency, images and consent

We consent to and ask permission about many things every day, writes DEANNE CARSON, yet consent remains controversial. In this blog Carson explores what an understanding of each other’s rights, and of consent, can bring to daily interactions with young children. Carson attracted worldwide attention earlier this year when interviewed about young children’s capacity to understand and give consent to simple daily activities. Deanne Carson will be presenting at the 2018 ECA National Conference in September. 

Consent is a pretty loaded word. Often it’s only associated with sexual activity. As a result, when I discuss teaching consent in early childhood, I’m sometimes met with shocked responses.

But consent simply means to give permission. We consent to things on a daily basis: to start work at a specified time, to clasp an outstretched hand in a shake, to the updated terms and conditions on Instagram.

In early childhood settings, consent can be both modelled by the educators and directly taught. Most educators we work with are already excellent at modelling physical consent with an understanding of the child’s rights. They ask, ‘would you like help washing your hands’, or ‘can I have a look at your hurt knee’.

They also help children understand the need for consent when touching other children by pointing out a child’s discomfort if play becomes too rough, or affection suffocating.

These skills are essential in understanding and respecting bodily autonomy. In helping children discover where their bodies finish and another’s body starts, we are laying the foundations for a lifetime of consensual interactions.

Taking images: who is consenting?

But what about an image of a child? Does the image belong to the child or the adults? And if it belongs to the adults, which adults: the educators or the guardians?

We receive written consent from parents to take and share images of a child. We need to now think about the child’s agency.

Have we had explicit discussions with children about whether they would like their photo taken? Have we informed them of the purpose of taking the photo? Do children understand that photos shared with ‘mum and dad’ are often also shared with the guardians of other children?

In her video, Janet Robertson outlines beautifully the non-verbal cues that children can give us to show they don’t want their image taken at any point in time.

When children use cameras

We can extend this respect for the child’s image autonomy by teaching them to also respect others. For instance, if children use cameras to explore their natural world and turn the camera on a peer, we can prompt a request for consent and describe the other child’s non-verbal cues.

When uploading photos the children have taken, we can again ask for consent and explain where the images will be stored/shared.

I talk to teens about social media use and consent. We discuss consent to take, alter and share photos. Young people are increasingly finding themselves either shamed for taking and sharing a sexy photo of themselves, or in trouble with the law because of non-consensual sharing of intimate photos.

Teens who have had an image shared without their consent look stunned when they learn they have rights under the law. Nobody has ever told them this before. Conversely, when we explain that non-consensual taking or sharing of images can result in legal action and the risk of a being placed on the sex offender register, some look panicked.

Foundations for lifelong social media use

The first image these children have had taken of them—the ultrasound—is often shared on social media to a huge network of people. From birth to teenage years, children have had innumerous photos taken of them and shared; often without their knowledge, let alone consent. It is no wonder they arrive in the teen years with little understanding of their rights and responsibilities.

As early childhood educators you can be powerful agents of change in incorporating consent for image taking and sharing into your daily practice, and laying the foundations for children’s future respectful social media use.


Deanne Carson is a speaker, author, researcher and educator specialising in gender and sexuality equity, abuse prevention education, and sexuality education. Her work spans early childhood to secondary schools, professional development and workshops for parents, carers and the wider community through Body Safety Australia. Deanne is presenting on gender at the 2018 ECA National Conference in September. Click here to learn more or simply book now.

Deanne Carson

Deanne Carson is a speaker, author, researcher and educator specialising in gender and sexuality equity, abuse prevention education, and sexuality education. Her work spans early childhood to secondary schools, professional development and workshops for parents, carers and the wider community.

One thought on “Children’s agency, images and consent”

    peter holland says:

    MY children do not appear on social media, even though I am a photographer. I need the consent of their mother, my ex wife, to do so. There may be other kids in the background that I need permission from parents to publish their child’s image, and I cannot control the viewers of the images, which can lead to areas of concern.

    I took it upon myself to get the “working with vulnerable people” registration for my state or territory, as it forms a basis of a level of care that all people working in some way with children should have.

    I have been on sites where children are present,and I ensure that an adult is aware of my presence.

    Children aren’t able to realise at a young age that their images can be taken out of context when they post them to share with others.

    Many kids these days have access to the social media sites via their parents, but the behavior of sharing images must be left until the kids can make rational choices about sharing. A child of up to 8 is not able to understand the reasoning behind sharing bans.

    when my kids are of an age of consent that social media accepts, they can then share with permission.

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