Ten boys between the ages of 13 and 15 were arrested on child pornography charges in Laval (QC) last week, after they were caught circulating sexually explicit photographs of girls their own age. Laval police arrested the boys at their homes early in the morning on allegations that they had been taking the pictures of girls they knew – in some cases their own girlfriends – and trading the digital images amongst themselves.
All of the teens were charged with possession and distribution of child pornography, while two of the boys also face charges for producing child pornography. The whole story is quite exceptional for a number of interesting reasons (click here to hear my discussion with CBC Radio’s Homerun host Sue Smith about this case):
There are several things that make this case particularly intriguing. To begin with, the girls were allegedly solicited by the boys to produce the images using a social media network called Snapchat, in which photos and videos can be set to delete after a few seconds. The boys allegedly grabbed screenshots of the images (or took pictures of the screens with their smartphones) before they deleted. A school staff member at one of the high schools the boys attend discovered the boys sharing the photos.
The second interesting thing about this case is the show of force from the police. Anecdotal evidence suggests there are many instances of sexually explicit digital images circulating in your average high school, a fair number of them without permission of the subjects. The administrators, guidance counsellors and teachers I meet when presenting anti-bullying and digital citizenships workshops are at a loss for how to deal with them effectively. The fact that the police decided to make an example of this set of boys appears somewhat exceptional. And while the most recent Throne Speech promised a new law prohibiting the non-consensual distribution of intimate images, that hasn’t yet come to pass. The Montreal Gazette reported furious reactions from the parents of the boys facing charges that their minor children were attested on charges such as these.
Which brings me to the third interesting thing about this case: minors being arrested on child pornography charges. It’s not the age of the accused that counts here; it’s the age of the alleged victims.
So what are the prime takeaways here? What do parents need to know?
Minors can be arrested for possession of child pornography. Even if it’s consensual. Even if she’s your girlfriend. Parents must tell their sons (and their daughters) that having sexually explicit images of someone under 18 wearing anything less than a bathing suit is a crime.
Any adult who comes into possession of such an image needs to be scrupulously careful to document where it came from and why. This includes teachers, principals and parents who see these images as part of cases involving their children and students. Since possession itself is illegal, you need a clear paper trail explaining that this was part of an investigation.
The girls involved need long-term support and help. It’s important not to overlook the victims here. These girls (and in other cases it may be boys) are at serious risk for bullying, coercion, blackmail, assault, depression, anxiety and a whole host of other problems. Care needs to be taken to help them manage the situation and follow-up with them over time (see here for another blog post on this subject).
The boys allegedly involved need guidance, support and rehabilitation, not just punishment. If allegations are true, then real harm was done here and the boys need to face the consequences. However, what they will need more than punishment is the education, support and guidance to understand what they’ve done wrong. They are still kids themselves, and we do everyone involved a disservice if we abandon an educational mandate in favour of a punitive one.
Anything in a digital format needs to be treated as permanent. Snapchat’s gimmicky self-destruct option offers only the illusion of control, thanks to screenshots and images taken with other devices. And this incident shows just how dangerous this illusion can be. Kids – and many adults – don’t always have the tech savvy to comprehend this. Parents need to explain this carefully and repeatedly to their kids – anything on the Internet is written in ink. No do-overs. No delete. My rule of thumb is that you never post anything digitally that you don’t want your mom to see. (Click to tweet this.)
Digital technologies are tools, not problems. It’s easy to blame the Internet, or Snapchat, or smartphones or digital technologies in general, but the underlying issue here is education. Parents and schools need to make sure kids understand the implications of the powerful communication vehicles at their fingertips, and we need to start this conversation as soon as they can click or swipe.
If you know a child who has suffered from having a sexually explicit image of themselves circulated online, then I suggest you check out the excellent resources for kids, parents and educators at Cybertip.ca.
My thoughts are with the girls whose nude images have almost certainly gone past the high school halls in the town of Laval. If they made their way onto the Internet at large, they may be haunted by those pictures for the rest of their lives. There is no way to get them back.
My thoughts are also with the boys at the centre of these allegations, who may well have made serious mistakes the implications of which they are only just beginning to comprehend. And my thoughts are with the parents of all of these kids, who may well feel bewildered and entirely unprepared for the kind of parenting this case appears to require.