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Friday, April 23, 2010

Sexting primer for parents: In case some basics would help

A lot of sexting numbers have been tossed around the airwaves after four separate national studies. I'd go with the latest (last December) from the Pew Internet & American Life Project: 4% of US 12-to-17-year-olds have sent "sexts," 15% have received one from someone they know (see this for more). Why Pew? Because they focused on the age range and issue of greatest concern due to child-pornography laws in this country: 12-to-17-year-olds and photos – specifically, sexually suggestive nude or semi-nude photos, not sex-related text messages, which other studies included.

It's helpful to remember that there are two sets of concerns, here: legal and social, both deserving of respect.

Legal concerns

First, keep in mind that what can happen legally depends a lot on the jurisdiction you live in and how police and prosecutors are applying the law to this bizarre legal conundrum where a child can be both perpetrator and victim at the same time. For example, students involved in a sexting incident in Perry County, Pa., where Susquenita High School is, received felony charges from their district attorney last year, while students involved in a separate sexting case in neighboring Franklin County, a different jurisdiction, were not prosecuted as felons. There are solid indicators that the tide is turning toward not treating juvenile sexting as a felony crime, but the possibility remains: People involved with creating, sending or even receiving a nude or sexually explicit photo of someone under 18 can be charged with production, distribution, or possession of child pornography.

A spectrum of causes

It's important for adults to keep in mind that sexting can have lots of causes – something that it seems law enforcement is beginning to understand, fortunately. The difference between parents and police is, we start with kids and adolescent behavior; police, rightfully, of course, start from the law. But, in some cases to tragic results, laws haven't caught up with kid behavior in a digital world. Sometimes the law can help, though: for instance if school officials confiscate and search student cellphones in states where a search warrant is required to search a phone as well as a home. The law may apply differently on school grounds, however. [It might be helpful for you or your PTA/PTO to contact your local district attorney and/or school board and find out what the law says about sexting by minors and searching private property, on or off school grounds, in your jurisdiction – just in case.]

The causes of sexting range from developmentally appropriate behaviors like "Truth or Dare" games gone very wrong ("I dare you to send a naked photo of yourself to the boy you like," says one 13-year-old to another at a sleepover – see this) to malicious peer pressure (popular boys pressuring shy girls in a "prank," an incident the mother of one of those shy girls emailed me about (e.g., this) to criminal intent like blackmail (e.g., this). In the Pennsylvania case I blogged about this week, the photo-sharing was all consensual – "among friends" – the girls themselves having taken the photos, I was told. But humiliation did become a factor on the girls' part, sadly; I can only imagine it kicked in very quickly.

The Pew study's "three main scenarios for sexting" are 1) romantic partners sharing images just between the two of them, 2) romantic partners sharing images of themselves outside their relationship (e.g., to show off, get revenge after a fight or breakup, and so on), and 3) the sharing of photo by someone who wants to get involved with the recipient – in a "flirting" or solicitous scenario. Most of this is not criminal behavior. I hope all adults, from schools to parents to police, will come to see that, as we deal with sexting incidents, punishment and prosecution are not the goal, but rather support for any child being victimized and community-wide learning in the areas of critical thinking, ethics, and civility (as well as restoration of order, if needed, so students can get back to being students).

What to tell your kid

What do you tell your child? If a sexting photo gets sent to a kid's phone, in most cases, he or she should just delete it. Certainly tell your child never to forward a "sext." At the very least that's truly mean to and disrespectful of peers; it also amplifies the problem and could potentially be seen as trafficking in child porn. Keep the conversation calm and supportive, get as complete a story as possible, and work through together how to proceed.

If your child came to you, that's great; you want to keep those lines of communication open because he or she may need a lot of love and support. Chances are, you're not the first to hear about the problem, and you need to be able to have as complete a picture as possible to help contain or stop harm to young people, especially the subject(s) of the photos. You may want to talk with the parents of other kids involved, but keep you child part of the process as much as possible. If you're not the first to hear, someone's probably already pretty humiliated, and that's almost certainly enough "punishment" – or better, enough hard lesson learning – for the young people involved. You don't want legal (or criminal) repercussions added on top of that for any child, not in the current legal environment.

By all means, help all kids understand the psychological risks, preferably and if possible before sexting happens, whether they somehow find themselves in disrespectful or abusive relationships or are floating in a "romantic" bubble of denial that says "maybe other people would share these private photos with anyone, but we never would." They must know by now that all digital media can easily be copied and pasted into the permanent searchable archive called the Internet! If not, keep reminding them.

The key social concern

As for the very important social concern: An expert I heard at a conference recently said that, if you peel off all the legal and moral layers in these situations, once photos have been circulated, what you have left is violation of a friend's trust. That's tough for any human being of any age to deal with. Add to that the challenges of teen identity and social development, and these are extremely rough waters for a young person. That's why great care must be taken to support young victims.

This isn't about technology or some new thing under the sun. It's about learning to be respectful of one's self, peers, and community online and offline when surrounded by a pretty sexually charged media environment and tethered by phones and other devices to the 24/7 reality-TV drama of school life.

Related links

  • To go more in-depth: "Sexting & Youth: Achieving a Rational Response," by Nancy Willard at the Center for Safe & Responsible Internet Use
  • "We know that for teens the peer network is crucial in terms of their sense of who they are, the communities they build, the people they trust," said University of Texas Prof. S. Craig Watkins in his keynote at the 2010 Digital Media & Learning Conference (at about 45:18 in the video).
  • "Kids need adults," said Philadelphia high school principal Chris Lehmann. "The world is bewildering.... The flow of information – you know, that drinking-from-the-firehose metaphor, it's happening to kids too. They need people to help them make sense of their world. But to do that we have to be willing to access their world.... If they're willing to let us into that world ... we should go there, and we should help them," Lehmann said in a talk at last month's TEDxNYed conference on the future of education.
  •'s Tips to Prevent Sexting
  • About the MTV study (released a week or so before Pew's last December), offering important insights on "digital abuse" and sexting
  • About being tethered to "The Drama" of school life: "Parenting & the digital drama overload" and "Cyberbullying & bullying-related suicides: 1 way to help our digital-age kids"

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  • Thursday, April 22, 2010

    NY's e-STOP law: Not sure how much it protects

    New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo recently announced that his state's new "e-STOP" law has "resulted in the removal of accounts associated with at least 4,336 registered sex offenders" (RSOs, some of whom had more than one account) from such social network sites as MyLife (formerly – 2,100 accounts), Tagged (950), hi5 (575), BlackPlanet (570), Bebo (542), Flixster (508), Flickr (448), Friendster (271), eSpin (120), Orkut (113), Stickam (109), Buzznet (18), and Fotolog (12). Without providing any detail, in his press release, General Cuomo also called on more than a dozen kid sites to screen for RSOs, among them BarbieGirls, Build-a-Bearville, Club Penguin, Girlsense, Neopets, and Webkinz. I think this announcement represents progress in the form of more granular understanding of the social Web as something hugely larger and more diverse than MySpace and Facebook. But it's not a particularly protective state law in that 1) it can only affect offenders in that state; 2) if lots of states adopt such a law with lots of different reporting procedures to social sites, the burden on sites to do anything with that data becomes greater and greater, which makes cooperation less likely (e-STOP requires offender compliance, not site cooperation, partly because the sites aren't based in New York); and 3) this would be more effective as federal law, in which case it would provide some protection to minors, but only from convicted and registered sex offenders in social sites, not from those who prey on children in real life, where the vast majority of such abuses occur, presumably most going unreported (even a law enforcement officer I spoke with recently said scrubbing social sites of predators doesn't go very far in protecting children).

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    Susquenita, PA, sexting case: A parent's view

    The day after the above blog post that mentioned the Susquenita sexting case, I heard from the father of one of the eight high school students involved. I'll probably post more perspectives in future, but I'm starting with this one, this week, because 1) I think the perspective of a father – of a teen whose involvement sounds pretty typical of students caught up in such incidents – may be useful to other parents and 2) this is the first case I've seen in the news where school officials are under investigation by a prosecutor for the way they handled the case.

    "I am one of the parents involved in this issue," wrote this father of a then-16-year-old. When school administrative staff ["head principal, two assistants, director of curriculum and the possibility of more," he later told me] started their investigation the morning of Sept. 24, 2009, they knew then that they were dealing with students and nude pictures, but they continued this [investigation] all day long before contacting parents and police, even passing these phones around to other staff.... My son was interrogated by the head principal along with the director of curriculum. They called my son a sex offender, told him he would go to prison, and that he would be placed on Megan's [sex offender] list. Then he was contained in the nurse's office for over two hours. Other students were treated basically the same....

    "My son along with [seven] other students [three girls and four boys] admitted they had a picture or pictures on their phones, etc. They told school staff who was in the pictures, etc., [but] the staff still went through [the phones].... The principal told us he didn't want to talk to the girl about this issue, saying 'he felt uncomfortable', though he didn't mind viewing her pictures and others' as well." [By the sound of it, the police called in at the end of the school day were the best part of this experience, reportedly respectful and clear about the students' rights and what was and wasn't lawful about the school's investigation – for example, a state trooper told the dad that he would need signed parental consent or a warrant signed by a judge to go through students' cell phones. The law differs from state to state, but that's something parents should ask if they're ever in this position: Do school officials have the legal right to search their children's phones without a warrant on school premises?]

    "I have been fighting this battle for these kids since it happened on Sept. 24th," the dad continued. "The district attorney offered a consent decree to all the students, involving probation, fines, and a few classes, and the felony charges were to be expunged when this [process] is completed. However, they still pursued the felony charges [he told me later that it's still not clear the students' records will be completely expunged].... These kids were charged with felonies from a law [meant] to protect minors from adult predators. Pennsylvania doesn't have a teen sexting law, although one is expected to pass soon. There needs to be a change to stop this destruction, not to mention the wrongdoing of the school. My question is, did any adult in this situation, from school to legal system, ever step back to have the best interest of these students at heart? No, they labeled and smeared these kids and families."

    When I asked him if there was any malice or bullying involved among the students, he said, "These kids did this willingly, they are friends. Don't get me wrong, I don't condone this, it was stupid, but they were basically keeping this private amongst themselves, meaning no harm.... I couldn't even imagine," he wrote, "being wrongfully charged with the worst type of charge anybody could face: sexual abuse of minors."

    All told, these students have experienced public humiliation, arrest (fingerprinting, mug shots, etc.), expulsion hearings before the school board, prosecution as adults, probation, fines, classes, and – as of this writing – the possibility of felony convictions remaining on their records, on top of whatever the students and families have dealt with privately over the past six months. Whatever happened at school last September 24, school officials do not seem to have been a support to them.

    Meanwhile, 40 students involved in a sexting incident a week later in the next county over, at Chambersburg High School (involving a different prosecutor), did not receive felony charges (see here and here for background).

    "The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association has pushed legislation that would make sexting a second-degree misdemeanor. If convicted of a felony related to sexting, children can now be forced to register as sex offenders," the Harrisburg Patriot News reported. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, "In 2009, lawmakers in at least 11 states introduced legislation aimed at 'sexting'." In some of those states, that legislation is aimed at deterring and applying appropriate penalties to teens who engage in sexting, NCSL reports. Let's hope the Pennsylvania legislature passes a teen sexting law soon and that it's retroactive.

    Related links

  • My sexting primer for parents
  • The best approach for schools to take (see "The goal of any incident investigation" at the bottom)
  • "Sexting: New study & the 'Truth or Dare' scenario"

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  • Wednesday, April 21, 2010

    Citizenship & the social Web mirror in our faces 24/7

    I think what A.J. Patrick Liszkiewicz says about citizenship at the beginning and end of a talk (about the social game Farmville, of all things), nails it: He told his audience at State University of New York, Buffalo, that "...democratic citizenship has always been a difficult skill to master.... Citizenship requires cultivation...." At the end of the talk, he adds, "The central task of citizenship is learning how to be good to one another." Exactly. I do think it's that simple and that hard. For *digital* citizenship, you just add the word "online" to the end of that sentence. That's it. Let's do ourselves and our children a favor and not make it one bit more complicated than that.

    The thing about this digital age is that it's holding up a very big, society-wide mirror to our faces nearly 24/7, and what we (meaning all of us) see in that mirror of humanity called the social Web is not always pretty. But it's unavoidably in our faces, so we are in effect being forced to think about citizenship – how we treat one another – in school, on phones, in Facebook, in ClubPenguin or WorldofWarcraft, at work, at home, wherever we commune, more than ever before. Because of this mirror in our faces. There are definitely things that need to be fixed at school, at home, in Facebook, but fixing those procedural, policy, and architectural things won't help much if we don't address the behaviors too. The behaviors, good, bad, and neutral, haven't changed all that much (though school bullying has gone down - see this). What's new is that we are being forced to look at them (and the attitudes behind them) so much, and we are overwhelmed, sometimes traumatized, by what we see. What's bad about this reality is that we think technology – the mirror – is creating the problem and keeping us from solving it; what's good is that the need to be good to one another feels more urgent than ever! [As for what Liszkiewicz says about Farmville (as basically the new chain letter) in the bulk of that talk, don't miss it!]

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    iPhone's safety, privacy extras

    Kudos to Apple for building extra layers of privacy and safety right into the iPhones of users who use apps that reveal their physical location. "Apple has long provided pop-ups that ask users to approve an app's use of location information before that app can get access," reports New York Times computer security blogger Riva Richmond, but there will be more in the iPhone's new operating system (OS 4). "To make it clearer just how often approved apps are collecting data about users’ physical whereabouts, Apple will display an arrow in the status bar at the top of the screen, right next to the battery-life indicator, whenever a user's location is being tracked." This is on top of any safety features provided by the services themselves (e.g., loopt's frequent privacy reminders and Glympse's see-where-I-am-only-for-the-next-30-minutes timeout feature, explained by ReadWriteWeb). As the Times's Richmond writes, we all love being able to find friends and great places to eat with the geolocation technology on all new phones, but we're not so crazy about letting just anybody track us or telling "a frienemy where the party is"!

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    Tuesday, April 20, 2010

    72% of US teens are daily texters: Study

    For US teens, texting beats social networking by far for daily communication with peers, according to a Pew/Internet Project report released today. Nearly three-quarters (72%, up from 51% in 2006) of US teens send text messages daily, and 88% of teen cellphone users do. "Half of teens send 50 or more text messages a day, or 1,500 texts a month, and one in three send more than 100 texts a day, or more than 3,000 texts a month," Pew says. I compared that "mere" 1/3 sending 3,000+ texts a month to Nielsen's latest numbers, showing all US teen cellphone users sending and receiving 3,146, thinking Pew's sounded more "reasonable." But note that Nielsen's referring to sending or receiving, not just sending. So Pew's 3,000+ figure is pretty amazing. The sending plus receiving figure for one in three teens could be double, or 6,000, since a single text message is usually just part of a conversation or string of messages.

    Pew seems to be saying that girls 14-17 own the space: That "entire cohort" averages 100 messages a day (sending), compared to the third of all teen cellphone users. "The youngest teen boys are the most resistant to texting – averaging 20 messages per day," Pew found. As for texting vs. other forms of communication (we now need to make distinctions between purely communicating and entertainment or socializing, where digital devices are concerned): Though texting is No. 1 for communicating with peers, voice calls are No. 1 for doing so with their parents. Where social networking's concerned, Pew says 25% of all teens contact their friends daily via social network site, vs. 54% of all teens who do so via texting. For 15-year-olds, the preferred communication methods with friends fall in this order: texting (54%), talk face-to-face (42%), calling on a cellphone (41%), social network site (40%, and SNSs have features like IM and email), calling via landline (37%), instant messaging (33%), and email (12%).

    And communication is obviously not the all of it. Pew reports that teens use cellphones to (good and neutral activities first): "Share stories and photos ... entertain themselves when they are bored (just like adults) ... micro-coordinate their schedules and face-to-face gatherings ... go online to browse, participate in social networks, and check their emails." Some also use cellphones to "cheat on tests and skirt rules at school and with their parents ... send sexts.... Others are sleeping with buzzing phones under their pillows, and some are using their phones to place calls and text while driving." There's so much more to this report, which draws on both a survey and focus groups (quantitative and qualitative information), including chapters on how parents and schools regulate cellphone use, attitudes toward cellphones, and the fact that 84% of teen cellphone users had slept with their phones on or right next to their beds. For some that's because it's their alarm clock, but staying in touch appears to be the biggest reason: "Teens who use their cell phones to text are 42% more likely to sleep with their phones than cell-owning teens who do not text," Pew says. Here's the Washington Post's coverage.

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    Monday, April 19, 2010

    MD case of middle-schooler sharing 'sexts' for $

    Seems kind of like the new "Risky Business" (meaning the 1980s film about the suburban Chicago high school student who turned his house into a weekend brothel to make some money on the side). The digital version of the exploitation – a student selling views of sexy or nude photos of peers, to peers – is less physical but affects more kids and can go on forever (see "The Net effect)." What I'm talking about is a new twist on sexting at an even younger age: a Bethesda, Md., middle school student renting his iPod Touch out to classmates so they can view "images of female classmates and other girls in various states of undress," according to the Washington Post. Pyle Middle School authorities last week turned the investigation over to local police, who are "trying to determine how a middle school boy came to amass such a large collection of provocative images" of 6th-, 7th, and 8th-graders." The Post adds that they want to make sure the girls weren't coerced into sending or posing for the photos, which have reportedly been passed around for months, but neither coercion nor adult involvement seem to be factors so far. The Post links to a message on adolescent development and cellphones Pyle Middle School's principal sent to parents just this month. [For another disturbing angle on the sexting issue, see this report from about school officials in Pennsylvania under investigation for mishandling student sexting photos (thanks to the Center for Safe & Responsible Internet Use for pointing this out.]

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