Category Archives: Observations

Prosocial media – WeHeartIt.com

Image from a user WeHeartItTeens often get demonized by adults when it comes to their use of digital technologies and social media. We spend an awful lot of time talking about how it dominates their lives, replaces face-to-face interaction, fosters bullying and cruelty, etc. It’s just human nature to focus on the problems and downsides, I suppose.

But it isn’t fair.

The majority of teens use these tools in friendly, prosocial, creative and/or productive ways most of the time. That just doesn’t make for a great news headline.

Which is why WeHeartIt.com made me smile. The brand new social network gets little notice from adults, but it’s already garnered more than 25 million users, 80% of them under the age of 24.

So how does We Heart It work? It’s essentially a mashup of Tumblr (the popular microblogging platform that encourages use of images, videos and GIFs) and Pinterest (the theme-based, pinboard-style photo-sharing website). It’s a fresh, young, creative collection of images that link to other places on the web, with a positive spin. Users are encouraged by the site to curate collections (or “canvases”) of hyperlinked images that you love, or that inspire or move you.

We Heart It collageFollowers can choose to “Heart” someone else’s post, which then automatically cross-posts it to one of their canvases. There are no comments allowed, so as to discourage negativity or bullying. Users can tag photos, but don’t write descriptions the way they would on Pinterest.

Kids are interested in the next big thing. Facebook is increasingly crowded with their parents, grandparents and nosy prospective college admissions officers and employers. They are constantly on the lookout for fresh new ways to curate an online personality and share it with friends.

So is WeheartIt.com here to stay? Only time will tell. In the meantime, it’s certainly of enjoyable to see a popular site that’s all about sharing and encouragement.

10 boys face child pornography charges: What parents need to know about sexting

Smartphone

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.

 

Why you need to think ahead to preventing risky behaviours while your kids are still little

Power of Positive Parenting flyerWhen parents of small children hear about kids who have problems with alcohol, drugs, smoking, unsafe sexual practices, cutting or gambling, they tend to think something along the lines of “Wow, I’m so glad I don’t have to worry about that stuff YET. My kid is only in a) day care b) kindergarten c) 5th grade. I’ve got YEARS before I need to think about it.” They are wrong. Decades of research on risk and protective factors underscore the importance of the things we do with our kids when they are small. What do I mean by that? Not necessarily discussing the nitty gritty details of prescription drug abuse, binge drinking or condom use on the way home from the playground (though if you are waiting until they are 12, it’s too late). I mean understanding what factors put kids at risk and what we can do to make them more resilient. Learn strategies to teach them self-control, problem-solving and decision-making. Teach them how to speak up for themselves. Help them practice active coping skills. Next: Give them information about these things in small, steady, age-appropriate ways from the time they are old enough to appreciate your family values – do you have a glass of wine with dinner? Does Grandpa like a glass of scotch in the evening? Does anyone you know smoke? Avoid – at all costs – lecturing them in one single Talk (which usually comes well after they have (mis)educated themselves with schoolyard theories and Google). You can see here for one example of how we can turn this kind of conversation into a less awkward, more practical everyday affair. Want to know more? Come join us tomorrow to hear the how’s, where’s  and why’s of these strategies in a talk at the YM-YWHA tomorrow evening, November 12th at 7:30 p.m. 5400 Westbury Ave. (corner Cote Ste. Catherine). Register: 514-737-6551 ext. 258 or sbenmergui@ymywha.com