Wednesday, December 09, 2009

MTV's Take on Online Safety

MTV has released its A Thin Line campaign to stop the spread of digital abuse. Interestingly, in the "about us" section, it specifically mentions "forced sexting" as opposed to sexting in general. An interesting distinction considering even voluntary sexting covers its own risks such as unwanted forwarding of the picture (more than a third of teens report getting pictures meant for someone else according to the infamous sexting study by CosmoGirl) and even charges of child pornography.

Meanwhile, MTV has released its own data about digital abuse in youth and young adults through age 24. While I wish they reported the age categories separately, some interesting findings include:
  • 1/4 of respondents state they know about an incident where somone took a picture or video of another doing "embarrassing or private things without that person knowing" and then shared them without permission.
  • 18% received naked images of another on their cell or over email
  • 11% were "pressured" to send a naked pic or video of themselves
  • 3% reported posting naked pictures of themselves

While interesting, I look forward to a more thorough analysis of the data. Stay tuned!

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Sexting -- get the facts right!

This article from a smaller Minnesota paper highlights the same sexting research that all other news stories cover. However, I am calling this one out because of the inaccuracies of its reporting.

For example, the article quotes the following statistics:
  • One in five teen girls ages 13 to 16 say they have electronically sent or posted nude or semi-nude photos of themselves online
  • 33 percent of teenage boys ages 13 to 16 and 25 percent of teenage girls have had nude or semi-nude images – that were meant to be private – shared with them

Looking more closely at the survey itself, the numbers in this article are flat-out misreported. According to the actual report, 11% of 13-16 year-old girls have electronically sent or posted nude or semi-nude photos of themselves online. I can't find within the report the parallel number for boys, but for all teen boys, the rate is 18% (compared to 22% of all teen girls, not just the younger ones).

The 33% of boys and 25% of girls who are sharing pictures is for all teens, aged 13-19, not for those aged 13-16. I could not find a separate statistic for the younger teens.

So, once again, news trumps accuracy in its attempts to send readers into panics. While I am not saying that the true numbers are to be ignored, I am saying that honest reporting of the issue would be a helpful step towards framing our approach to working constructively with youth to encourage safe and smart technology use.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

International POV on sex education and the internet

I often complain about the lack of quality, accurate sex education in the US, but at least there is some sex ed here. This article out of India notes that teens get most of their information about sex education from media sources, including the internet compared to only o.5% from their parents and 4.5% from teachers.


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Viruses that plant child pornography on your computer?

A recent case in which a man was accused of possessing child pornography was dropped, as it was discovered during the investigation that his computer had a virus that downloaded the illegal images onto his computer.

Stories like this beg the question -- could this happen to you?

Answer from Larry Magid, internet software and safety extraordinaire: "It is indeed possible for malicious software to plant child pornography--or any other type of file, for that matter--on an innocent person's computer, but being possible doesn't mean it's likely. And forensics experts can detect intention."

Translation: Possible? Yes -- Likely? No way.

Still, there are things you can do to protect yourself (though experts stress not to lose sleep over this):
1. Clean out your cache and cookies early and often
2. Clean out your Temp file in your C Drive too
3. Pay attention to the sites you visit and try to go to only trusted sources
4. Note times when your computer is acting sluggish and try to determine if something is being downloaded during those times (use Ctrl-Alt-Delete to look at programs that are currently running and do some searches on them if you do not recognize what they are)

But again, although charges of child pornography are indeed serious, this is not something that should cause panic given its high unlikelihood.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Great Piece From Wired on "Raising an Internet-Savvy Child"

Although I pretty much love this whole article from Wired, The First Email Address: Raising an Internet Savvy Child," here are the highlights for me:
1. "The same approach to have towards teaching them to know right and wrong offline applies to their activities online. "
-- I support the idea that although the internet has many "new" aspects, responsible and ethical use really is all about learning how to treat others and yourself with respect and good will. Know that offline, and it will happen more readily online;

2. The New York Times stated it first, but it's repeated in this article (and should be repeated several times): "you ,the parent> should practice the same guidelines in posting and e-mailing personal information like photos, birth dates and addresses as you would want from your kids. Just as you wouldn’t want them giving out information online about your family that would put the entire household at risk, you must guard their information as well to ensure that your privacy practices online don’t put them in danger."
-- If we don't practice safety common sense, why should we expect our children to do so?

Seriously -- read this article, especially if you are a parent. It will be one of the smartest things you will do to support healthy internet safety.

Monday, October 12, 2009

New web site in Colorado

A new site, "Teen Clinic," was set up to provide a safe space for teens to ask questions about sex and sexuality. They have a Twitter account, a means for youth to text in questions, a web platform for question asking and, of course, MySpace and Facebook pages. Question: How is this site going to be any different than all the others out there (of which Teen Wire and Sex Etc seem to be the most popular)? Is anyone going to start keeping track of how many youth use these sites to get their specific questions answered? And, if they already do that, will they let the rest of us know how useful these sites are?

Monday, September 28, 2009

The TRULY Wordwide Web: My dilemma

First of all, thanks for your patience concerning my absence. I have flooded with grant-writing, but the overall good news is that I have had many successes. I hope to resume some semblance of regularity in posting soon.

Meanwhile, I have noticed that many comments have been posted on my blog entries as of late. They are not in English, so I honestly have no idea what they say. Using Google's translating option, I tried to figure out their meanings -- with little success. Of course, these posts are about sex; after all, this is what this blog is about! But my question always was: were these posts genuine, or created by a SPAM bot and filled with invitations to view adult-related material? There were times when I thought the former, but ultimately I decided they were more the latter. As a result, I have deleted most of these posts.

I bring this up, because it really posed an ethical dilemma for me. Do I assume the worst or hope for the best? Did I censor the disingenuous to create a safe environment for honest visitors, or by deleting expression did I shut down rarely-articulated dialog about an issue? Sadly, I will never know. But one thing I do know is this: the internet is a place where every language is spoken and all topics are discussed. At this point in time, however, my blog is not a specific outlet for certain people and I feel somewhat apprehensive about that decision.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Early sex education: Inquiring minds want to know

Today, September 4th, 2009, the top question asked by kids on is "What is love?"

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Interesting Debate on Sexting

On a listserv comprised of the top sex educators and counselors in the US, if not the world, there is an intense debate going on as to the potential harm of sexting, More specifically, the discussion revolves around a case in which a teenager (read: a legal minor) is engaging in some form of sexting (not clear from the original post) with an out-of-state adult (again, age unknown, but not a minor). The simple question posed to the listerv: What should this counselor do?

Clearly, there is no easy answer. And thus the debate. Some say it's a form of sexual abuse. Some say it may be harmless. Some insist on contacting Child Protective Services due to the poster's status as a mandatory reporter, while others say no as there is no clear and immediate danger. One person suggests the minor contact a rape crisis center.

Others are asking whether there are any laws to draw from. Other than ones about distributing child pornography (which potentially would only get the minor, not the adult in trouble), we come up empty.

And, as I said at the beginning of this post, this debate is going on amongst the cream of the crop experts on issues related to sexuality. If they don't know the answer, who will? How are we going to figure out the best way to react to this situation? Because it probably happens a lot. But is a sexting relationship between a teenager and adult as potentially harmful as a face-to-face one between the same parties? An intereting question to ponder, if only it were hypothetical.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Reaching Teens

A question for the marketing people, who spend millions of dollars answering this question: How best to reach teens online with good information about their sexual health? Of course teens use social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace and others, but do they want to get information there? Would they "fan" or "friend" a site? For example, Sex Etc. has over 6,000 fans on its Facebook page. But as I scroll through them, a lot of them are older (indeed, I am one of them!). And when you consider that teens often average 100s of friends as an individual, you can see that Sex Etc.'s outreach is far from overwhelming.

It appears they do not use Twitter, so that is probably out. ISIS is trying to use cell phones/texts to deliver its messages about sexual health -- so are others.

As someone who is supposedly an expert at reaching youth, I find that I (and others) still struggle with the best ways to reach out.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

New Legislation Introduced to Senate

The School And Family Education (SAFE) about the Internet Act of 2009 has been introduced to the Senate. It's purpose is to "promote Internet safety education and cybercrime prevention initiatives, and for other purposes." From what I can tell by reading this Act, the education would take place primarily in the schools, but at no cost to the schools. This means seeking federal monies for grants, which means the Feds are going to have to see this as a priority.

One of the things I especially liked about the text of this bill were that they were interested in "peer-driven Internet safety education initiatives." However, the word "evaluation" is nowhere to be found, which makes me nervous.

While I am not holding my breath on this one given the current economic times and other priorities, it is a first step towards recognizing the importance of online safety. It also may be the first time there has been a formal attempt on a national level to suggest that internet safety belongs in school instruction (Virginia has state legislation related to supporting online safety instruction).

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Causing Panic Down Under

An uninspiring "study" out of Australia states that more than half of teens lie about their age online. As if teens trying to pass as older than they really are is some new phenomenon (C'mon, readers, when did you get your first fake ID?).

What I find especially disconcerting about this newspaper article is the lead: "TEENS are using the internet to lead double lives..." it states. I mean really -- you read the rest of the article and it simply states that teens lie about their age and use pictures to make them selves look better and more "cool." Is this really something to get in a panic about? I think not.

Interesting note: The study was conducted by a "skin products manufacturer." And we wonder why teens struggle to look better all the time...

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Recent reports on teen sexuality and sex education

A month is too long to go without a post, but to be honest during these past couple of weeks I have been thinking less about teens, sex, and the internet and more generally about how young people use the internet to learn, grow, and develop. These thoughts are occupying me as I try to think about how we can best support youth and young adults to become leaders and can the internet help in that goal?

Meanwhile, the latest news on the sexual health of our youth is not good. A recent report published by the Guttmacher Institute states that between 2003-2007, teen contraceptive use declined by 10%, even though rates of sexual activity remained stable. Not surprisingly, the teen birth rate increased 5% between 2005-2007. The authors of the report posit that abstinence-until-marriage sexuality education may deserve part of the blame.

And speaking of sex education, a report out of Canada notes that the sex education there does not match the wants of the teens who receive it. According to the wonderful Cory Silverberg, sex educator extraordinaire, teens reported learning about:
  2. STIs
  3. Pregnancy/birth control.

But they WANTED to hear about:

  1. Healthy relationships
  3. Sexual pleasure
These findings support what I have been witnessing for a long time now -- so-called "comprehensive" sex education is anything but. Sex should not be taught outside of the context of relationship.

I hope to be back writing and pondering how technology fits into all of this soon!

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Sexting = Spin the Bottle?

I have a feeling this is going to be all over the news (or maybe just in my head it will be) -- according to UPI, Dr. Peter Cumming, an associate professor at York University, references sexting as a modern day spin the bottle or strip poker.

While I appreciate Dr. Cumming's attempts to normalize the behavior of sexting and place it in developmental context (goodness knows I have tried to do so, too), I think it would be more accurate to say that sexting is like playing spin the bottle or strip poker in front of several cameras. Or maybe even the whole school. Including the cafeteria workers. Because, you never know who is going to get those pictures, do you?

Also, with spin the bottle and strip poker, more than one person is involved. Therefore when young people were getting caught in those cases, they were not alone. In the sexting incidents I am aware of, many involve one young person whose compromising image was sent to his/her (usually her) peers en masse. Big difference to have some friends with you while going through the humiliation, shame -- and potential trouble with the law. Quite another to be the only one.

Actually, I think letting young people tell us the differences and similarities between strip poker and sexting would be very interesting. Could open up a great dialogue about the pros and cons of certain types of sexual experimentation.

Yet while I criticize Cumming's words, I do appreciate this sentiment from him: "What I would say to anyone is to take a deep breath, think in context, and use common sense."

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Peer Education

I am a huge fan of peer-to-peer education, so loved seeing this article about how teens are being trained to talk about the dangers of the internet. OK, so I wasn't thrilled about the "danger" framework, but I think the best way to teach internet safety is by having young people do the talking! Thoughts?

Monday, June 01, 2009

Internet and Health

A new way to think about how the internet impacts teen health by Red Orbit:

"Teens that text, drink too much caffeine, play games and surf the internet all night are experiencing difficulty staying alert and functioning the next day."

Although caffeine seems to be the real culprit here, it is interesting to see how the internet not only impacts relationships, school work, and everything else we can think of it also alters/challenges our ways of dealing with time!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Salon's "Hysterical" Quote of Day

According to, there was a Congressional hearing on sexting. While some of the testimony report is truly touching and points to the need to address this issue constructively, some speakers were more prone to dramatics, as was the case with Kayla Barclay, Miss Utah 2008.

As quoted on's Broadsheet:

"Barclay recalled an early experience in her life, when she tried to log on to her Hotmail e-mail account but accidentally typed 'hotmale' instead. She said that the explicit photo that appeared on her screen sent her screaming away from the computer.

'A picture of a naked man showed up on screen and, at that time, I was so appalled and I ran downstairs in tears to my mother thinking I was going to be in trouble,' she said. 'I did not go onto the Internet for six months after that.'"

Thoughts on this quote? Helpful for Congress to hear it? An overreaction or an understandable feeling?

PS While I am not sure when Barclay committed this typo, I replicated it just now in Google. While indeed there is reference to gay porn and other forms of sexuality, I was not barraged by any images whatsoever. Hmmmmm.

Monday, May 11, 2009

A new "sting" operation

With technology available to almost everyone, in a sense we all can become journalists or investigative reporters. Remember what made the 1991 Rodney King story so compelling was that a bystander was able to film the entire thing -- excessive police force and all. The incident could not be boiled down to a "he said/she said" battle (with the person with less power -- King in this case -- usually losing); there was documentation to support the story for all to see.

Fast-forward to 2009 where pictures and even video can be captured on a phone. Most computers come with webcams, and sites enable people to upload their images --their story (or their version of it) for free.

That is exactly what anti-choice UCLA student Lila Rose did. She and a team of supporters are engaging in a series of stings on Planned Parenthood -- posing as underage girls impregnated by adults and recording what happens. Her videos reveal that sometimes Planned Parenthood staffers ignore the age of the father when discussing pregnancy options, which is illegal as cases of child abuse and/or statutory rape potentially are being discovered. According to the article in the LA Times about Rose, her objective in posting these sting operations is to "undermine legal abortion by showing that Planned Parenthood, the largest provider of abortions in the country, abets sexual exploitation by counseling pregnant minors to lie about the ages of their adult boyfriends."

Anti-choice activists have been accusing Planned Parenthood of failing to report suspected statutory rapes for years. But disseminating the evidence using new media is the new generation's way of doing things. The videos -- five minutes each and accompanied by ominous music and fast cuts heighten the story they tell. Representatives from Planned Parenthood accuse Rose of editing out some key portions of the encounter in order to serve her cause and exacerbate blame.

So, is this journalism? Cause for an investigation? Or just a student project? It remains to be seen. And stories such as this, as well as that of the ill-fated To Catch a Predator, will only become more common as even us common folk are able to tell our stories to the world (or to anyone whom will listen).

Like through this blog.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Don't Call Me Stupid!

Came across this new non-profit organization The Institute for Responsible Online and Cell-Phone Communication (I.R.O.C.2) through a press release (should have seen the warning flags there). According to their website, this organization "is dedicated to educating society about safety, self responsibility, self accountability and the devastating and life altering consequences (emphasis added) that can occur."

They claim to promote online safety through "Digital Responsibility." While I support the idea of acting responsbily online, I am wary of some of their language which seems to be very blaming and alarm-causing. For example, one of the workshops they seem to be promoting highly is called "Sexting is Stupid." The title itself fails to appreciate that some aspects of sexting, while possibly not the best idea ever, are still within the realm of developmentally appropriate (sexual expression, desire to be loved, etc).

I sure hope that organizations like this don't take off. The last thing we need is more fear-promoting, alarmist groups claiming to improve online safety and usage in youth.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

The Law is Still Catching Predators -- Just Not on TV

A new report finds that more people are being arrested for sexually soliciting youth online than they were six years ago. However, this is mostly due to "sting" operations, where the number of arrests for soliciting undercover investigators who posed as juveniles increased almost 500%. In contrast, arrests for solicitation of actual children increased 21% from 2000-2006. Although it should be alarming that those crimes involving actual children are increasing, it is important to remember that internet use overall during this time has increased much more than 21%. So, proportionally, these solicitations are on the decline.

According to the report, arrests of online predators comprised only 1% of all sex crimes against minors. By far, the vast majority of sex crimes against minors are within the family or local community -- not by online strangers. On a similar note, the report also noted that there is little to no evidence that minors were being "lured" by adults or found by predators based on personal information they post. Instead, youths were the ones reaching out to people whom they knew to be adults and seeking relationships with them. Unfortunately, some of these adults take advantage of such situations.

Bottom line is that online predation remains a rare occurrence. Minors are more often abused by someone close to them (either a family or local community member), and when they are sexually involved with someone online, it is someone whom they already know to be an adult, and actively have formed a relationship with.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Age of Consent and the Internet

An interesting non-case in Oklahoma -- two 16-year-old girls, one from Hawaii, one from New York, each flew to Oklahoma to meet a man they communicated with online (note: these girls are both at the age of consent according to the state laws of HI and NY). But since the girls traveled willingly, and they are "of age" according to these particular state laws, there is no crime. But the man bought the plane tickets, so the FBI got involved, based on laws that prohibit "transporting teenagers across state lines for the purpose of sex," and potential kidnapping charges.

While I appreciate that there are sex trafficking and kidnapping laws in the United States, this might be a situation that is best left to the families, not the legal system.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Tragedy with a lesson

This horrible incident lets us know that it can be adults, not simply youth, who take risks online. According to the Daily News, 47-year-old George Weber was stabbed to death by a "troubled" 16-year-old after the latter responded to Weber's craigslist post seeking "rough sex."

I was hesitant to post this for a couple of reasons:
(1) First, what happened here was truly awful and to use it as an example might not be the best idea. But unfortunately, I think it takes something this drastic to have it make the news in the first place.
(2) This incident might be more about the dangers that can result from feeling ashamed of one's sexuality than about online risks. I certainly don't know all the specifics here, but it could be that if this man was more comfortable with his sexual desires, and society did not portray his preferences ("rough" sex) as taboo, he could have found a safer way to express them.

But I ultimately made the decision to see if any readers out there have any comments on this and how it might contribute to the dialogue related to online safety.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Thoughtful, yet inaccurate, article

Textual Misconduct: What to do about teens and their dumb naked photos of themselves, by Dahlia Lithwick and featured both on Slate and in Newsweek, addresses the now extremely hot topic of sexting and child pornography. Like many others including myself, she recommends that minors who send sexually explicit photos of themselves NOT be charged with child pornography distribution and their hapless friends should not be guilty of receiving and possessing it. Yet, while researching for this piece, Lithwick discovered that when such cases do result in criminal charges "prosecutors have charged the senders of smutty photos, the recipients of smutty photos, those who save the smutty photos, and [/or] the hapless forwarders of smutty photos" -- it just depends on the jurisdiction! Such inconsistencies surely provide an example of how the law is not really equipped to handle this phenomenon.

Despite my overall affinity towards this article, I did want to point out a sensationalizing misrepresentation of the recent survey conducted by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy -- according to "Textual Misconduct," this survey has "one teen in five reporting he or she has sent or posted naked photos of himself or herself." In actuality, the survey reports that one in five teens have posted a "nude or semi-nude [emphasis added] pictures or videos of themselves. Big difference, because in the latter example, a boy would say "yes" to this question if he has a picture of himself shirtless at the beach -- a gal might say yes if she has posted a photo of her scantily clad (but not naked). These latter examples of pictures may be problematic, but they do not qualify as child pornography. And thus, the law would not be applicable.

While I hope to see more intelligent dialogue on this topic, I really hope it will be accurate.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

More Scandals in Club Penguin!

I adore this post on Net Family News, written by "undercover mom" Sharon Duke Estroff. I love it because it is simple, to the point, and therefore quite powerful.

She tells a story of forbidden love between two penguins that can't be rivaled even by the last Bachelor series. Posing as just a regular old character in Club Penguin, a social world for kids (designed for 6-14 year olds according to the site), Estroff finds herself in the midst of a huge singles scene. She's hanging out in a virtual pizza parlor with a swanky penguin named "Cowboy217," who offers to take her back to his place. There, at his pad, they play Truth or Dare, and the CP version of spin the bottle (Spin the Lava). Then, they kiss. And when Cowboy feels the moment is right, he asks for her flipper in marriage. Why do I get the feeling she is not the only one?

Poor Estroff doesn't know what to do. For she, too, is already taken (a married mother of four IRL, according to her post). But, her heart wins out and she accepts. End scene.

What's the messagage here? Well, there are several. One is simple -- kids will experiment sexually no matter where you put them. You may be shocked by this scenario (which according to Estroff is very common in CP), but when you consider the "real world" games of "I'll show you mine if you show me yours," as well as the same Truth or Dare and Spin the Bottle games mentioned above, most people shouldn't be all that surprised. Unless they forgot what they were doing in elementary school and junior high...

Another message is more developmental. This scene, to me, is relatively normative for kids who are going through puberty (OK, except for the marriage part -- still not sure about that Penguin custom? Can't they just go out or be each other's sweeties?). But the site says it is for kids between 6-14 years old! Since when did we ever think an age grouping that large was a good idea? I am wondering what would happen if a 6-year-old was propositioned by Cowboy. Would the child on the other side of the online penguin even know what was going on? And, if so, would there be any psychological confusion or harm?

I think these are questions we need to consider as people of ALL ages venture into virtual worlds. And to do that, we are going to have to acknowledge that we are sexual beings throughout our lifespan (yes, even small children have some essence of sexuality) -- and a computer screen might not only not slow that down, it might actually speed it up.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Internet: Friend or Foe?

A brief editorial Coming of Age on the Internet by the Association for Psychological Science challenges the still-prevalent notion that the internet is more about isolation than connection. It looks back into the internet dark ages (read: mid to late 90s) to recall how initial studies on the phenomenon focused on how spending time online detracted from "real" relationships and sent our youth into cyber isolation.

Has our mindset changed 10-15 years later? Given that in the United States, online communication among young persons is pretty much universal (up to 97% according to Pew), researchers might have been forced into doing so, but are indeed looking more at the positives. According to the editorial, more recent research findings indicate that online networking is associated with greater happiness and well-being; surfing alone does not have such benefits, and may be related to some psychological risks. This finding isn't any different than face-to-face findings which show that socially connected people are happier.

Is this just evidence that the internet doesn't create problems, but is simply an example of how current human interactions work?

Friday, February 27, 2009

To Friend or not to Friend Your Child?

Let me be honest -- I have no children. I only have memories of what my life was like as a teenager. Now that my disclaimer is out of the way...

With the emergence of Facebook as "the" social networking site for both youth and older adults, the arbitrary division between the world of young people (formerly MySpace or the internet in general) and their parents (formerly the tangible earth or AOL) is narrowing. We are witnessing the winnowing away of a different sort of digital divide. So what does this mean? It means that there are times where I notice my friends (the adult kind) are friends with their children on Facebook. Not friends as in "I am here watching you -- be careful!" but friends as in "hey, let's watch a movie tonight."

I find this a little odd. Probably because I never had that sort of relationship with my parents, so it's hard for me to understand how someone could small talk and just sort of hang out with theirs. But, from the couple of examples I see online, it seems to be working. But what do I know? I am not friends with that teenager's friends and I don't really see what else is going on on the walls of Facebook...

Which brings me to this blog on Plugged in Parent entitled Parental faux pas on Facebook. When I first read it, with its basic rules for parents on Facebook, I thought to myself, duh! What parent wouldn't know not to avoid friending their friends (that's just weird)? Don't parents know not to comment on everything their child writes in their status update (that's annoying)?

Then I realized that parents might NOT know those things. Why? Because they might not realize the basic nettiquette of Facebook and online interactions in general! I was lucky enough to become part of the online social scene relatively early (was on Friendster in the 90s, was IM'ing back then too with up to 10 windows open at once), so I need to remember that not everyone who is "old" like me understands the not-so-basic rules of the online world. They will become intuitive enough, but right now they are like those bizarre exceptions to the spelling rules you learned in grade school "i before e except after c..."

So thank you Plugged in Parent Sharon Miller Cindrich for sharing some of the basic rules so we can all live happily under the same URL.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Placing "sexting" in context

Salon puts a contemplative spin on the issue of "sexting" (the act of sending X-rated pictures electronically). It opens with the media-typical shock stories of young persons sending naked pictures of each other and then getting charged with child pornography. But, after the attention-getting scheme, it spends time deconstructing the issue more critically, posing some of the most difficult questions we need to consider:

1. Should people under 18 be charged with child pornography if they are willingly sending a picture of themselves to someone else who is happy to receive it? Does it matter if both parties are under 18 (or the legal age of consent in their state of residence), or should the age difference between the two be taken into consideration as in statutory rape?

2. Do the laws related to child pornography need to change given that the initial taking of the picture was likely not, in and of itself, a traumatic event? At this point, much of the argument against child pornography is that the experience of it being created is a traumatic event. This doesn't seem to be the case in these situations...As Amy Adler, a law professor at New York University, states"Child porn law was founded on a very different vision of what the major threat was."

3. Should someone under 18 be charged with possession of child pornography if they didn't know they were going to get the picture of their naked classmate? This is a very likely scenario and, in my opinion, those who unknowingly find themselves in possession of illegal material are not likely to tell an adult about it if they fear being charged.

4. Is sexting creating a whole new way of sexual expression, or are teens simply repeating old ways of sexual expression, but immortalizing it using the technology? The author of the Salon article reminisces about standing in front of the mirror and mimicking "porn poses." The big difference now, of course, is that the mirror is now a camera. And the implications are much bigger. But is the activity itself that different? Hard to say.

5. How much is our "porned culture" to blame? Should there be more media restrictions on Girls Gone Wild commercials, for example, or should free speech dominate as it has in the past?

These questions are critical to examine if we are going to progress on this issue. And including teens in on the conversations will help researchers, policy makers, and parents best understand how to handle this issue.

Friday, February 06, 2009

How cool is "That's Not Cool?"

There's a new website -- That's Not Cool -- sponsored by The Family Violence Prevention Fun, Ad Council, and the Office on Violence Against Women. It features pretty humorous, but somewhat cheesy, videos about "digital boundaries" -- cyberstalking, sending nude pics (sexting), and other issues related to romantic relationships going digital. I really like this term, and hope to see more of it as adults begin to appreciate this issue.

One feature, "Pressure Pic Problem," features the dilemma an apple (yes, a piece of fruit) faces when his friends pear and banana want him to get his gal orange to send nekked pics of herself. It's interactive, sort of like a choose your own adventure game, so you can see how different situations play out.

Then there is guest video "What if?" created by YouTube celeb Brandon Hardesty. It discusses the difficult question "who to turn to" when faced with such pressures. And when I checked it out, it already had over 66,000 views!

All the videos I watched were silly more than funny, making me wonder who they will appeal to (get it? Appeal? See Pressure Pic and you will appreciate my lovely pun...). But I guess if they get anyone's attention it is a good start to the conversation about how to set limits on communication in an era where we expect instantaneous responses and to be able to be up-to-date on EVERYONE'S business at the click of a button.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Sexual Bullying

Once again, I can turn to the UK for progressive thinking on issues that matter to me -- for example, they have been way ahead of the US in terms of developing curricula on cyberbullying and the grooming techniques of online predators. Now, they are starting to acknowledge that bullying using sexual content deserves specific mention. The BBC published an article on "sexual bullying," which they simply define as "anything from sexualised name-calling to spreading rumours about someone's sexual behaviour, to criminal offences such as assault and rape." A UK-based online news site noted that 3500 students were expelled from school for sexual misconduct and that teachers were among the victims. Although this coverage on sexual bullying does not reference the internet specifically, I think it is an important step to separately consider bullying of a sexual nature from other types of harassment.

The BBC article focuses on a very basic survey of 273 11-19 year-olds (this is a PDF of the results in their entirety). While the sample size is too small and age range too large to really make anything of it, its presence makes me optimistic that more attention will be paid to it in the future. And maybe sexual bullying online will also begin to get notice. I have complained about the lack of connection between cyberbullying and sexuality before. Perhaps this connection will be made more often at least across the pond, if not here.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Fear-based Spin

Although I have an earlier blog post about the Internet Safety Technical Task Force report, I came across an article that I must vent over.

To recap, the ISTTF report was published as an official statement of the Task Force regarding their opinions and recommendations regarding online safety for minors, and how to approach this issue going forward. Their main points were (see pages 4 & 5 of the Executive Summary):
1. The use of the internet by adults to abduct minors is very rare. Adult predation cases that incorporated the internet typically involved "post-pubescent youth who were aware that they were meeting an adult male for the purpose of engaging in sexual activity." Random abduction is essentially unheard of.
2. "Bullying and harassment, most often by peers, are the most frequent threats that minors
face, both online and offline." In other words, researchers, policy makers, and other concerned adults should focus on bullying, not predators, when striving to improve online safety.
3. "The Internet increases the availability of harmful, problematic and illegal content, but does
not always increase minors’ exposure."

So, imagine my dismay when I see an article whose headline reads: "Study Proves American Teens are at Serious Risk." This article cries: "Abuse, bullying, hatred and pornography crowd the internet; and no where are they more prevalent, or more dangerous, than on sites geared towards teens." Huh? Did I miss something here?

Unfortunately, I did not. For this is no article, but a press release disguised as news written to promote an online safety service. Too bad the author of the release didn't see the Task Force recommendation that the Attorneys General NOT "endorse any one technology or set of technologies to protect minors online." (p. 6).

Hopefully parents and other adults will notice and act accordingly.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Reminding Youth about Public Access to Information

I thought this study, featured in the New York Daily News, was quite clever. The beginning of the research is simple enough: Author Dr. Megan Moreno analyzed 190 public profiles of young persons aged 18-20. Not too surprisingly, she found that all of their pages included three or more references to sex, drinking, drug use or smoking. Ho-hum. Most research stops there and sounds out the alarm.

What happened next was simple, neat, and full of useful implications. After seeing the profiles, "Dr. Meg" sent each of the MySpace subscribers an email which read "You seemed to be quite open about sexual issues or other behaviors such as drinking or smoking. Are you sure that's a good idea? ... You might consider revising your page to better protect your privacy." And guess what? After three months, 42% of those receiving the message either removed the material or changed their profile setting to "private" so that only their friends could see their information.

Neat, huh? This just shows that with a little nudge, young people can understand how their private information posted in a public forum can and is seen by unwanted parties. And a simple reminder, they will change their behavior.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Internet Safety Technical Task Force Carries a Strong Message

It takes great news like this to awaken me from my holiday slumber. The Internet Safety Technical Task Force is releasing their report which concludes that ""actual threats that youth [online] may face appear to be different than the threats most people imagine." The New York Times headline reads: Report Calls Online Threats to Children Overblown.

I feel both happy and vindicated. Happy, because this is an accurate assessment of the experiences of youth online. Vindicated because I set up this blog and have been making presentations with this message for several years now.

Larry Magid, who served on the Task Force, summed it up beautifully by saying: "
While the task force found that youth risk from predators is a concern, the overwhelming majority of youth are not in danger of being harmed by an adult predator they meet online."

Instead, according to the Task Force report, the focus of our online safety efforts should lean towards better understanding -- and preventing -- cyberbullying.