Imagine for a moment, you wake up, start your day as routine as ever with coffee, a shower, breakfast, nothing out of the ordinary, nothing particularly good, yet nothing particularly bad going on, and you head off to work as your children head off to school. By all accounts, it’s just an ordinary day. Then you get that phone call from school officials that result in you having to go down to the school. Your first reaction is “Say What?”. Your second reaction is “Say What? Would you please repeat that (as if you can’t believe and comprehend the words that you are hearing)”? Your third reaction is “Wait, what? Not my child!”
Such is the case as many parents received calls as we recently learned that, yet again, another high school has gotten caught up in another sexting scandal. This makes three schools caught up in a sexting scandal in as many weeks. The first one, occurring at a high school in North Georgia, Union County High School in Blairsville, Georgia, involved 46 of the 850 students enrolled in the school according to the AJC (Atlanta Journal & Constitution). That’s over 5% of the student population. “Students involved were between the ages of 14 – 18” according to School Superintendent, John Hill. The GBI (Georgia Bureau of Investigation), in conjunction with the District Attorney’s Office, hosted public meetings with school administrators, teachers, parents, and students to discuss the ramifications of this behavior. The District Attorney’s office chose to utilize this as a learning opportunity instead of seeking indictments and prosecution of the teens involved, but further stipulated, paraphrasing, “this is a one-time deal. If it happens again, I will not hesitate to prosecute these students.” Furthermore “Regardless, if you take naked pictures of yourself as a minor, you have committed a felony; production of child pornography (a.k.a child sexual abuse imagery). Additionally, you have committed a felony; possession of child pornography. And the moment that you send your naked pictures to someone else, anyone, you have committed a felony; distribution of child pornography. These are all very serious crimes.” That’s a huge problem. Students involved face disciplinary action, including possible expulsion, but due to the discretion of the District Attorney’s Office, managed to dodge a bullet that would have stuck with them for the rest of their life.
The second, Sleepy Hollow High School, Westchester County, in Sleepy Hollow, New York. Police are investigating multiple anonymous solicitations of sexually explicit material from several students at the local high school.
The third, another Georgia high school, several Roswell High School students in Roswell, Georgia were disciplined after naked photos were allegedly shared on an online file sharing service according to Fulton County School officials. “Students questioned by school administrative officials admitted to circulating a Dropbox account containing the inappropriate images of students” according to Fulton County School District spokeswoman, Susan Romanick. The Dropbox account has since been closed, so it has become problematic to forensically determine the depth of the scandal.
All of these students could have been prosecuted under miscellaneous and sundry statutes of Child Pornography in the states in which they reside. Additionally, if they sent it across state lines to a recipient in another state, then it becomes a federal case under federal jurisdiction.
I wrote about this exact same problem almost a decade ago. My daughter, a seventh-grader at the time, came to me while I was lying on the bed getting ready to go to sleep, sat down, and said: “Dad, I need to talk to you.” I said, “what’s up, Honey?”
She said: “I don’t know what’s going on at school, and I don’t even know if it true or not, but rumors are going around that Caroline (Not her real name so as to protect her identity), has been sending naked pictures of herself to kids around the school, and they’re going around the school.”
I said: “Well thanks for letting me know. I’ll see what I can find out, ok?”
Knowing her parents, I called her mother. I explained to her what I had been told, and that had the situation been reversed, I would hope that someone would be kind enough to let me know something like that was going on with my child. She agreed and thanked me and said that she would check into it. Sure enough, a few days later, her worst fears were confirmed, and my worst fears for her were also confirmed. She was, in fact, taking nude photos of breasts and her vagina and sending them to a boy who was then forwarding them to other kids in the school. It spread like an airborne contagious disease.
This wasn’t a new thing as it turns out. Kids were doing this sort of thing all the time. And it generally starts in middle school, yet there have also been cases where it has happened as early as elementary school. As old as I am, I can recall an incident in kindergarten on the playground where kids were scattered about playing when I walked upon a bunch of boys surrounding a girl pulling her pants down exposing her bare buttocks for the rest of us to see. Perhaps the perpetrator made a predatory sexual connection. I know I didn’t, and neither did the rest of the kids watching as they just stood around giggling as if it was a laughing matter of humiliation for the poor girl. I didn’t know what to make of it or what it was all about at age 5, but I knew it wasn’t right. For what it is worth, he got in a whole lot of trouble, and I can only imagine what her parent’s reaction was whenever they learned of the incident.
I am painfully aware of an incident involving middle schoolers, who on a school-sanctioned overnight trip, chaperones went to check the students out of the hotel the next morning only to discover that in one of the hotel rooms, a group of girls had rented an inappropriate movie. The movie, as it turns out, was one depicting lesbian activities that the girls watched. Their interrogation revealed that not only did the girls watch the movie, but proceeded to act out the parts that they saw in it. And they recorded them on their phones. All four girls were expelled; one of them being a coach’s daughter. Another incident involving a 10th-grade student who was expelled, along with her male companion, because she was caught having anal sex in the hallway at school. On what day does a child, no matter what they’ve learned elsewhere, think that this is such a good idea? Yet another boy, a ninth grader, was caught masturbating in class. And a group of boys were immersed in watching an inappropriate pornographic video in the back of a classroom that depicted several men lined up to see who could shoot the farthest like seeing who could spit the farthest, only different (use your imagination).
I love technology. It truly is great and amazing. We had the Dewey Decimal System in numerous index drawers, a few different sets of encyclopedias such as Britannica and New World, and microfiche to fill in the gaps to do our research. Anyone born in Generation Y or later (1980 – 2000) has had the luxury of going to college and utilizing the Internet to do their research utilizing a Mosaic or Netscape Browser in lieu of the archaic methods that preceded them when they were in secondary school. At least they recognize these terms. Generation Z or later (2000 – Present), I’m reasonably certain they wouldn’t even know what these things were, let alone how to use them any more than an 8-Track Tape or the necessity to “rewind” a cassette tape, a rotary phone or even a dial tone or permanently affixed landline like an umbilical cord, or a phone book or a roadmap or atlas. This infusion of technology has granted us unprecedented access to enormous massive amounts and volumes of information and data in a matter of seconds that would otherwise have taken us months to accumulate.
But with that technology, also comes enormous risk and responsibility. Notwithstanding the necessity for new and improved rules on utilizing that technology. If an older generation wanted to take a naked picture of themselves, they would have had to have either used a Polaroid camera that would develop the picture within 5 minutes of having taken it so as to preserve their own privacy, or taken a picture with an ordinary camera and had the film developed at a local film processing facility (also a relic of the past that has disappeared from the landscape in much the same way as pay phones and the other aforementioned items). However, some processing facilities, censored images that were inappropriate, thus destroying them, while others would turn them over to law enforcement authorities to investigate to determine if they were deemed inappropriate and illegal. As such, these types of pictures were so very rare.
So, What Should You Do About It?
Several things actually. And this advice, while the target audience is your adolescent teenage child, though I could easily argue the necessity of it for the prepubescent child, your up and coming teenager, as a parent of one, you don’t need to just talk about these things. You need to preach them in much the same way educators utilize repetition to reinforce important educational concepts. Because make no mistake, if you’re not teaching them, you can rest assured their peers are. Or worse, some adult whose ulterior motives are less than honorable and what is otherwise in your child’s best interest.
- If you foresee having the need to take a naked picture of yourself, first evaluate why you need to be taking it. If it is for medicinal purposes (i.e. you can’t see something on your body that is causing you pain, harm, or concern, by all means, take the picture of it so you can see it, and share it if necessary, with those safe enough to share it with; like your parents or your physician.)
- Pictures, for the most part, are almost always 100% digital today. If you are utilizing a digital camera, unless you have it connected to WiFi, you will not have to worry about your digital pictures being exposed to the outside world. However, if you are utilizing a phone, that phone, barring being set to Airplane Mode and Disabled Cellular Service, has a direct link, a direct connection if you will, to the outside world. So chances are more likely than not, whatever picture or video that you take on the phone is also uploaded automatically to the cloud so that it becomes accessible to you from other internet accessible devices. As such, you have dramatically increased your risk of exposure in much the same way iPhone accounts were hacked and leaked, known as “The Fappening” that exposed naked photos and sexual behaviors of famous celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence, Kaley Cuoco, Anne Hathaway, et al, just to name a few. Unwittingly, when they took what they believed to be very private photos and videos, they became very public, and often humiliating, personal private exposure for the world to see. This was never their intent.
- Today, virtually everyone now has a camera ready cell phone, and thus everybody has become their own personal private photographer and videographer (a cameraman). Notwithstanding the number of cameras that are literally everywhere nowadays, not much is private anymore. Any time you are outside of your personal private bedroom or bathroom, make the assumption you are being watched and/or recorded. Even public restrooms, dressing rooms, changing rooms have become subject to hidden voyeuristic cameras. As such, it is incumbent upon you to use reasonable discretion as well as a level of modesty and dignity so as to prohibit anyone from having the ability to exploit you in such a way. If you go into any of the aforementioned facilities, make an assumption there is a hidden camera, and look for the presence of one.
- This isn’t so much of a problem for most teenagers, but it certainly could be. Several years ago, Prince William and Princess Kate (Catherine) Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, were inappropriately photographed as the Duchess was sunbathing topless while on holiday from a half kilometer away utilizing a digital camera with an 800mm-1000mm zoom lens. By the time they realized it, and proceeded to get an injunction against the perpetrator that invaded their privacy, the damage was already done. Her topless pictures were scattered all over the internet like an uncontrollable wildfire. The photos are now a permanent fixture on the internet available to anyone who cares and wants to see them. This is also why you should never lie topless on any public beach, your own balcony or deck, pool, back yard, or anywhere else that has the propensity to capture your very compromised nudity unless you have little care in the world who happens to see it. Yes, even a private backyard isn’t private enough for the simple drones that are now available to capture your nudity. If you wear low-cut blouses, you subject yourself to unscrupulous individuals intent on capturing your cleavage, otherwise known as “down blouse” photos, and they hope, some glimpse of your bare breasts. If you go out commando, without panties, you subject yourself to unscrupulous individuals intent on capturing your crotch in what is otherwise known as “up-skirt” photos. So it is incumbent upon you to exercise good judgment and modesty when you venture out into public, for you never know who is looking, and you certainly never know who is recording.
- Some teenagers, and predatory adults even, will pray on the ignorance and vulnerability of our youth. They will use a compromising photo as a means of blackmailing or extortion of sexual content, “sextortion”, from an individual. “I have naked pictures of your breasts” they’ll say and will threaten to publish it and distribute it to all of your friends, family, and the world to see if you do not give them more of the same. Where the problem lies, if you’ve ever taken any pictures of your naked breasts before and sent them to anyone, you have no way of knowing whether or not the perpetrator is lying to you in order to sextort more naked pictures from you. Don’t ever do it. You will never be able to climb your way out of this dilemma by yielding to their demands. If you did send anyone pictures, you will have to face the reality of doing so, and I would very highly encourage you to notify legal authorities, as this type of behavior is also illegal and is sexual exploitation of a minor. If they are praying on you, they are praying on others as well.
- Sexting! I could write an entire dissertation on this subject alone. Sexting is not only taking pictures of yourself in an uncompromising position. It is then sending those naked pictures to someone else. It generally starts out as an innocuous process. Some boy wants, and begs, for you to send them a naked picture of yourself. It’s so very unbecoming, yet, they begin to rationalize and groom their victim to send them. “Just this once, please?” and “I swear I won’t ever show it to anyone else, please?” and “I love you, and if you loved me too, you’d do this for me, please?” So you give in, and you send him a naked picture. “Don’t ever show this to anyone ever, or I’ll never speak to you again,” you say. The boy is like, “OK”, and almost as quickly as he receives the picture, he forwards it on to someone else in a state of pride, boasting about it like it is some sort of badge of honor that you shared your naked body with them. “Look what Caroline sent me.” That’s precisely how her naked pictures got distributed amongst all of the students she went to school with. She succumbed to the peer pressure of sending her naked picture to a boy, and he betrayed her by distributing her naked picture, first to one person, then another, then each of them, in turn, distributing it. You can see how it evolves from a distribution to a broadcast level in a very big hurry in much the same way a rumor mill works. There are many, and I mean ridiculously so too many to list, apps that these teenagers utilize to send and receive, distribute, and share their inappropriate material with one another. Aside from the obvious Text and Facetime messaging, on the surface, the ones that come to mind are Snapchat, Kik, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, Whatsapp, and HouseTab. If you want to know more, there is no shortage of websites that will tell you what the most popular apps for sexting are, so it is a smorgasbord of available apps to do so. And as a parent, if you want to go through your teenage child’s phone to hunt for and find pictures, good luck with that. There is also no shortage of websites that will tell you what the most popular apps for hiding your naked pictures are too such as Gallery Vaulty, Hide Files – Andrognito, KeepSafe Photo Vault, Hide , F-Stop Gallery, Piktures – Beautiful Gallery, Hide Something, Vault, Private Zone, Pictures & Videos – Vaulty, LockMyPix Photo Vault, and many more. You truly have to become a forensic analyst and detective to unravel what’s behind closed windows and doors on their phone. You really have to take a lot of time, energy, and effort to learn the dynamics at play with their electronics to find out what lies beneath the facade of applications disguised as something else as simple as a calculator. We were all so very clever at hiding things from our parents. This is an order of magnitude thousands of times greater.
- On April 27, 2018, the infamous website, Anon-ib, the notorious revenge porn site with pictures taken of women in compromised states of undress and sexual conduct without their knowledge or permission, popular for its exploitation of young, underage, nudity and inappropriate sexual material, was finally shut down after a very long intensive investigation by Politie, the Dutch police. Seized were all Anon-IB servers which contained hundreds and hundreds of women targeted by hackers, including those aforementioned celebrities. It became a huge haven and repository for revenge, swapping, and sharing of women in different states of undress and sexual activity unbeknownst to them that they were being targeted and publicly displayed upon the world stage. Worse, much of their personal information, including, but not limited to, their name, age, their location (City, State, and Country), what High School they attended, etc, all identifiable information was fair game for anyone who wanted the information or wanted to share it. Many women had no idea until someone, either looking for it or stumbling across it, brought it to their attention and showed them what was displayed and their personal private information. But crossing international boundaries for law enforcement becomes a very tricky process. Nonetheless, the good news is, this website is permanently closed. The bad news is, where one is closed, there are at least a dozen that rise like a phoenix out of the ashes, or stoop to their level as it were, to take their place. Newchan, 4Chan, and Anonsharer, are just to name a few. However, there is another more sinister and deep-rooted mechanism for continuing to engage in these activities. That is Discord. Discord Servers scale vertically and horizontally and infinitely in all directions. Under the guise of gaming, Discord Servers are being used far and wide to continue to share the same inappropriate content that was once so widely available and shared on Anon-ib. It’s like cutting off the head of a snake, and then two grow back in its place. It is, in effect, something you will never be able to fully eradicate any more than a terminal illness for which there is no cure.
- There is another problematic behavior that goes beyond the sexting of teenagers sending inappropriate material back and forth to one another. That is, online sexual behaviors. Where there was once IRC (Internet Relay Chat) and Usenet Newsgroups, there are now Webcams as internet speeds have jumped from 56k Baud dial-up modems to fiber to the home gigabit ethernet connections. The technology just wasn’t capable to send and receive video because it required much more bandwidth than the technology was capable of. There are plenty of unscrupulous websites designed for webcamming which allows your underage teenager to interact with adults around the world freely. These are sexual predators, and there are far more webcam sites like Cams, Steambate, Cam4, Camsoda, SlutRoulette, Chaturbate, LiveJasmin, ImLive, Bongocams, Stripchat, and many many more. I worked with a very young girl, who met her husband on Tinder, and had an infant child. When I spoke with her, the first thing she told me was “I’ll have to forewarn you. I’m pretty messed (not the word she used, but you get the point) up!”. I said “Oh Honey, there are those who are pretty messed (not the work I used either) up, and then there are those who have yet to admit it. You have taken a giant leap forward simply by admitting that which you already know to be true.” She went on to tell me how she left home at the age of 18, that she left on very bad terms with her mother, that her father was deceased, and moved in with her boyfriend. The boyfriend, as it turns out, wasn’t interested in her as a human being, but as a young woman he could exploit, and what amounts to sex trafficking. She engaged in webcamming for an anonymous worldwide currency known as bitcoins. The reason websites utilize bitcoins is because it circumvents a lot of the international banking laws that can be utilized to extort money changing hands in the form of tariffs and also to hide the identity of both the buyer and the seller of what amounts to illegal services. She managed to escape the abusive relationship with the boyfriend, moving a few states away and settled in on a relationship with the man she met through Tinder. And let’s be clear. Tinder isn’t a “matchmaking” app. It is a “hook-up” app. that started out as an intended sexual rendezvous, and ended up in a marriage and children. It isn’t the most ideal of circumstances to begin a relationship. All of these websites exploit young women at their expense, for the benefit of a multi-billion dollar pornography and sex trade industry.
- As Tinder has already been mentioned, it is only one of the so many hook-up sites available. In July 2015, Ashley Madison was the subject of widespread media attention when their system was breached and data was stolen, and all 25 Gigabytes of it, including client details, was unleashed and prominently and so very publicly displayed on the internet. Their slogan? “Life is short. Have an affair.” I am quite reasonably certain, following this debacle, for many of their patrons, it became “Life is short. Get a divorce.” While this particular website catered to adults and predominantly men and women who took interest in engaging in an inappropriate extramarital affair, it had a most valuable lesson for all of us. That is, your personal private information, your details, no matter where you post it on the internet, it becomes a permanent fixture on the internet. This website was extremely reckless, negligent, and careless in protecting the privacy of its users. Mitigation of risk is a very costly proposition because the tools, applications, and appliances necessary to prevent intrusion, hacking, and leaking of information is a very delicate and expensive process for those who are tasked with protecting their corporate and client assets. There will always be individuals who try to break into your network. Ashley Madison’s target audience was married individuals; not couples. As I have already mentioned Tinder, there is also Skout, MeetMe, Omegle, Hot or Not, Badoo, as well as many many more whose target audience is, your teenager.
- If you wouldn’t publish it on a billboard, alongside the interstate, complete with very identifiable picture(s) of yourself (in any state), complete with your name, address, school, hobbies & activities, sexual history, etc., then don’t publish it anywhere else. The best policy, barring refraining from sending any pictures anywhere to anyone, is not taking any compromising pictures or videos of yourself at all. Just don’t do it. Also, use a little common sense, dress appropriately to protect your honor, modesty, and dignity. Then you’ll never have to worry about uncompromising pictures of you showing up anywhere.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, I was poised to bear witness to these things in my capacity in leadership roles in both the public and private educational system. As such, I received first-hand knowledge of these, and other activities students routinely engaged in. It is imperative that we embrace the facts, ignore the fiction, and take the necessary steps to ensure that our children may slide into home plate that is adulthood instead of having never made it to first base.
Last, and this is so very important. What I have found, through so many parents is this: “What? Not my child!” Yeah, right! You better think again. As a parent, if you believe this for a moment, you really need to seriously re-evaluate your perception of what’s going on in the lives of those you love the most and what’s going on in the world around you. The aforementioned seventh grader, after having been caught, continued to produce, transmit, and receive naked pictures of herself and others along with so many of her peers. It doesn’t matter if they are popular, nerdy, artistic, athletic, atheist, religious, wealthy, or poor. These teenagers are embarking on this inappropriate behavior because, like all of the other teenagers that came before them, they believe themselves to be invincible and immune to the consequences because “that will never happen to me”, “it’s no big deal; all the kids are doing it”, and “I’m just a kid.” They experience that untouchable mentality “What are they going to do to me?” As adults, we can look back at the stupid things we managed to get ourselves into as a teenager, but then too wonder how we ever managed to make it out alive and survive it without getting killed, or permanently scarred or disfigured, in the process. Invincible we were. Until we weren’t.
So what have we learned from all of this? From a legislative perspective, the laws governing and the police and prosecutorial enforcement of it, are so far behind and need to catch up with the technology. When considering the intent and spirit of the law, when written, it was intended all along to protect children from sexual predators; not from themselves and each other. They share these things with one another like “If you show me yours, I’ll show you mine”. A child should not, as was determined and demonstrated by the Union County District Attorney’s Office, be indicted and subject to prosecution for perpetuating a crime for which they victimized themselves. Self-incrimination and victimization is their own worst punishment and they are their own worst enemy as a self-reflection and natural consequence of “I did this to myself.” There is nothing good that could ever come from prosecuting, and subsequently incarcerating, and even registering as a sexual predator, these kids for their inappropriate sexual misconduct. However, when you are sending and receiving and storing naked pictures of other minors, then that’s another story and where it becomes a problem and should be dealt with swiftly and immediately. I concur with his decision to grant what amounts to a one-time nolo contendere meaning that you are considered neither guilty, nor innocent, and plead mercy on the court. I don’t know that legally, he has that discretionary authority as I’m not so sure that he, as the executive branch of government may circumvent the rule of law as defined by the legislative branch of government. Nonetheless, it was the right decision even if it was an illegal one. I would have come to the same conclusion and made the same decision and proceeded to push to have legislation changed to support it.
Parents, Go Talk To Your Children.
No, go preach to your children. Tell them, in no uncertain terms, you have equipped yourself with the wisdom, all encapsulated with knowledge, education, and experience to know what is going on in their lives, that if they want and intend to hide any of these things, these activities and behaviors from you, that there will be dire consequences for doing so, the least of which is losing your phone, and computer access limited to the living room in front of everyone to see. Do not pass judgment upon them and reinforce that you only drive this point home because you love them so more than anything else in the world. That the most important key. “I love you!” It doesn’t matter if they say it back. Just say it. “I love you.”
So teenagers, if you are reading this, You have been given a tremendous powerful tool, an opportunity never before seen, that is also a very dangerous tool. You have no idea how this is but a small picture, pun intended, and a subset of what is to come if you engage in these behaviors and activities. Don’t take your youth and your invincibility for granted. You’re not! So take it for what it is worth, fall back on the wisdom of those who came before you, and learn from it, and accel because of it. Because the decision is yours as to whether you control it or it controls you. Take your pick. Your message?
DO NOT UPLOAD ANY INAPPROPRIATE MATERIAL TO THE INTERNET. PERIOD!
Please take some time to reflect on what you have learned here. I am forever and always open to learning new and more ways that our youth are getting themselves into this mess. Because at the end of the day, when we, as adults, figure out who, what, when, where, and how they are doing it, as quickly as we discover it, they find new, more secretive, more private, more creative ways around it to continue to engage in it. We need to stay educated, stay informed, and stay vigilant. And if you really want to make a profound impact on your child, you will:
“Prepare your children for the world around them instead of trying to protect them from it. For if you prepare them, you can take comfort in knowing that they can and will make the right decisions and do the right thing in your absence.”