Interested in attending “Smartphones, Sexting & Social Media: Practical Strategies for Parents?” There are two upcoming opportunities in the Montreal area on February 13th and March 1st. While both are free, they do ask for RSVP.
Join me on either date for a practical discussion about what you should know when it comes to kids and digital technology, and what you can do to promote safe, responsible, creative and productive use of these wonderful tools.
Learn what it means to raise a “digital citizen”
Understand how technology use has changed the way kids socialize, do schoolwork and sleep
Set up effective household rules to complement what they are learning in school
Create and enforce reasonable limits on use of digital devices
Keep your kids talking to you about what’s on their mind and what’s happening at school
Build positive online “footprints” for future school and job applications
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.
A big challenge of parenting in a digital age is keeping up to date with the technologies our kids are using. Truth is, it’s time-consuming and constantly changing. Hard to fit that extra learning and guidance into schedules already crammed with carpools, swimming lessons, last-minute dinners and never-ending piles of laundry. And the reality for plenty of moms and dads is that they need their eight-year-old to figure out why the printer isn’t working or set up the PVR, never mind helping them wade through a gazillion levels of Facebook privacy controls.
In many families, kids way outmatch their parents when it comes to technology.
So when the New York Times or your local paper runs an article about teens getting into trouble with some new app or social media tool, parents tend to have one of four reactions:
Denial. Oh god. My kid would NEVER get involved in anything like that. S/he’s way too smart.
Panic. Oh god. My kid is going to get into SO much trouble with that. I have no idea how to even begin making sure s/he is safe. I feel totally overwhelmed by how dangerous our world is.
Procrastination. Oh god. One more thing to worry about. I should talk to him/ her and see if they know about this. But I’m so busy and they will just roll their eyes and groan, and I haven’t heard anyone I know mention it. I’ll do it soon and hope for the best in the meantime.
Cursory check-in. Oh god. I better ask them if they know anything about this. No? Really? Great. Nice talking to you.
None of these are particularly helpful. Even worse, numbers one through three will actually interfere with your relationship with your teen. Number four makes you feel like you’ve accomplished something, but you are setting yourself up to be shut down. Few teens appreciate the lines of direct questioning that will inevitably lead to lectures or more rules. Totally ineffective, but lets you mentally check it off your List of Things to Talk About.
So what does work? Two things: education and communication.
Take Snapchat, for example. This picture-sharing app allows users to send images and control how long the viewer can see it, up to 10 seconds. After that, the picture supposedly disappears and can’t be seen again.
It’s possible to imagine a million fun, silly and totally benign uses of such an app. But it’s also possible to see how the temporary nature of the image would appeal to those who want to share sexually suggestive images (often called sexting). It gives the appearance of being a totally safe way to do it. After all, after a few seconds, there’s no trace of your wild side left to haunt you.
Maybe not. While the site is set up to notify you if a user tries to screen grab the image, it’s not clear if they can actually prevent someone from trying to do so. And even if they have put in that kind of control, I can practically guarantee there are computer whiz kids out there trying to hack their way through those controls as I type. Furthermore, as the New York Times blogger Nick Bilton notes, there is nothing to prevent a user from snapping a picture of the photo on the screen using a different camera.
How big a problem is sexting for our kids anyway? Hard to tell. Lots of anecdotal evidence but very little good quality research out there. Bilton cites a yet-to-be released Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project that shows 6% of adult Americans admitting to having sent a sexually suggestive or nude picture of themselves, but only 3% of American teens. Another 15% of adults admitted they had been on the receiving end of that kind of image.
This seems to suggest sexting is not nearly as big a problem as the media make it out to be. However, I do a lot of work with high school principals and teachers who would swear that figure is vastly underreported. Some of them say they deal with sexting in their schools (and the related bullying and behavioural issue) on a regular basis.
I’m not going to wade into this one. It’s not my intention to fan any kind of moral panic or hysteria concerning the hypersexuality of teens. What I am interested in is helping parents keep kids safe and using technology in productive, creative and respectful ways. The guidelines I advise in this case are the same ones I’ve always proposed:
Talk to your kids. Often. About everything. In the car on the way to hockey practice. In the kitchen after dinner. Late at night when they are going to bed.
Listen when they talk to you. Don’t cut in. Don’t have an answer for everything. Don’t offer unsolicited opinions.
Know all accounts and passwords for your pre-teens and young teens.
Make sure they understand that their freedom online (and with cellphones) is a privilege to be earned through consistent, responsible behaviour.
With pre-teens and young teens, periodically review their accounts and cellphone materials with them (not behind their backs).
Talk about things like sexting, even if it’s embarrassing and they’d rather die. They often don’t understand the many, many ways these images can be humiliating, hurtful and destructive.
Tell them never to write or post anything they don’t want their parents to see.
Tell them they must always be respectful to others.
Bring risk(within)reason to your school or community organization!
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"What a crucial conversation, and what a talented speaker! Dr. Alissa Sklar’s presentation to Akiva School’s parent body was full of clear, relevant, down-to-earth facts presented in a highly engaging manner. No jargon, no scare tactics – just solid information and excellent advice. A no-risk program for parents." -Frances (Cooki) Levy, Head of The Akiva School ("The Power of Positive Parenting: Preventing Risky Behaviors for All Ages")
"Alissa is the consummate professional and speaks with great authority. We hope she will be one of our feature speakers at many future workshops." Kelly Wilton, editor and co-publisher of Montreal Families Magazine
RiskWithinReason is intended as a support and information resource. If you need counselling for your child, consider contacting a trained child psychologist. Your family doctor or CLSC can recommend one, or you can also visit Collage Therapies at http://www.collagetherapies.ca/en