CTV News interviewed me for this terrible story about a 24-year-old man who posed as a young girl on Facebook to lure 11 to 13-year-old boys into sending nude pictures of themselves. He would then coerce or blackmail them into sending more by threatening to expose them to their families.
Kids are often quick to take other users’ identities at face value. They don’t yet have the experience and judgement to question such things, or to anticipate this kind of deception. The person on the other end doesn’t have to be a pedophile – it can also be a school bully, or another student attempting a mean-spirited joke.
What can parents tell their kids? If your kids are online, you should bring up the subject of deliberate or mistaken identity switches. Let them know people can do this for all sorts of reasons, out of curiosity, for a joke, to bully someone or to gain someone’s trust to hurt or humiliate them. Tell your children it is unethical – and sometimes illegal – to pass as someone else just to gain their trust. All it takes is a stolen password or using someone else’s picture, and it’s difficult for other users to know what’s going on.
Remind your kids to maintain a healthy dose of suspicion if anyone online asks you to do something that makes you uncomfortable, or that is illegal. It is important that kids know it is against the law to share pictures of anyone under the age of 18 wearing anything less than a bathing suit. Even if he is your boyfriend (or girlfriend). Even if you send it willingly. Tell a trusted adult. And if they don’t do anything, tell someone else.
Most of the time this kind of deception involves a peer, classmate or acquaintance and not a sexual predator online, but the underlying lesson about the ease of deception online remains the same.
Among the trickier situations you may come across are those that involve your friends’ kids. You come across your friend’s 12-year-old son smoking cigarettes in a neighbourhood park. Or perhaps you stumble across a compromising picture of another’s daughter online. Maybe you hear about disturbing bullying behaviour going on at school. Or, most complicated of all, your own child comes to you concerned about a friend engaging in high-risk activities, from drinking or illegal drug use to cutting.
What do you do? Reporting on what you’ve heard or seen can feel awkward at best, potentially risky at worst. We all like to think we’d want to know if our kids were doing something illegal or dangerous, but the truth can be way more complicated. Some parents can get very defensive. They may be embarrassed or aggressive. It’s quite common for parents to deny that their baby would ever do something like that, because the implication is that they have somehow failed in their parenting role.
In the very worst cases, calling up another child’s parent to report on what you’ve heard or seen can turn friends/acquaintances into enemies. A highly defensive parent may accuse you or your child of having a hidden agenda, accusing you of being self-righteous, never having liked their child, or starting untrue rumours for social gain. And if your child came to you with disturbing news in confidence, you risk alienating your own kid and causing social issues for them, in an effort to help a child at risk.
There’s no easy answer in this kind of scenario, but the following guidelines can help you make sense of a difficult situation and determine the best thing to do.
Understand the difference between meddling and worthwhile intervention. This is similar to the distinction we give kids between tattling and telling when they have witnessed bullying going on. Tattling behaviour (or meddling) is all about getting someone into trouble (“She puts on lipstick as soon as her parents aren’t around”); telling (or worthwhile intervention) is about getting someone out of trouble (She’s cutting her arms with a razor blade”). Only those indiscretions which truly involve potential danger need be reported. (Click to tweet this.)
Question your own motivation for getting involved. Is there some element of competition? Some unresolved issue between you and the child’s parents, or between your kids? If you truly feel this child is at risk because of what you know, then you are on more solid ground. Assure the child’s parents that you have no intention of gossiping or judging them, and that in a similar situation you would want someone to tell you your child was in trouble.
Consider how close you are with the child’s parents. There are some smaller indiscretions you may choose to tell a very close friend, because you know their values, worries and concerns for their kids, but which would be inappropriate to tell an acquaintance or a parent you’ve never met.
Never promise your child complete confidence when someone can potentially be hurt. It’s tempting to tell our children that we will always keep their secrets, but this is dangerous ground. If you believe they know of a potentially dangerous situation (for themselves or others), you and they have a moral obligation to do something about it. They need to know this from the beginning, even if it means they may occasionally be more reluctant to speak to you. The critical factor is how you react: Don’t go behind their backs. Involve them in problem-solving. Determine the most effective and respectful form of intervention. Try and explain the long-term consequences of helping their friend.
Consider whether this issue places an undue burden of responsibility on your own child. A friend who confides to your child about such problems as depression, drug use, or thoughts of suicide is inadvertently overwhelming them with responsibility. These serious problems are too much for a teenager to deal with alone, and if something really terrible happens as a result, they will feel accountable. Kids don’t have the experience, judgement and knowledge to help out someone in real trouble, so know when to go to an adult for help is really important. If your child has come to you with this, it’s likely because they are feeling overwhelmed. They need your help to figure this out. Note that it’s always worth gently questioning your child about their own involvement, since it’s not uncommon to bring forward a problem to test your reaction by saying it’s “for a friend.”
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.
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