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Friday, March 21, 2008

Naked photo-sharing trend: Police perspective

This is a trend deserving parents' and, for that matter, everyone else's attention - especially teens'. The Associated Press report of Utah middle-schoolers taking and sending nude photos on their cellphones joins similar reports from Alabama, Pennsylvania, and Georgia in the past few months. And in 2007 the child-porn-distribution convictions of two Florida teens were upheld in a state appeals court (they'd taken sexually explicit photos of themselves and sent them to the boy's personal email account).

In the Utah case, the prosecutor told the AP that police expect to see more cases like this - they were in fact dealing with "several other similar unrelated cases" - and he is not alone in his struggle to figure out how to handle cases involving teens distributing photos that in effect constitute child pornography depicting themselves and their peers. They cover a full range of behavior, from impulsive to developmentally fairly normal adolescent risk assessment to outright harassment and bullying. For example, here's what investigators discovered in the Georgia case, as reported by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children:

"Some girls were peer-pressured into taking inappropriate images of themselves and sending them to the boys. Others complied with the boys’ requests for pictures because they had crushes on the boys. Many of the girls suffered from low self-esteem or did not understand the seriousness of the situation because 'everybody is doing it.' Few realized their images were being circulated throughout the school and, in one case, traded with a suspect in the United Kingdom. In another case, one of the boys was charging students at the school $25 to view graphic images of one of the female victims. As of this writing, investigators have tracked down hundreds of images, and at least one video, involving these victims." [A partial report is under the second heading on this page at NCMEC.org.]

It's important for teens and parents to know that these cases, which could technically be treated as federal felonies (child-porn distribution), are posing a real challenge to prosecutors. Det. Frank Dannahey, a youth officer in Connecticut for 17 years, agrees that this is a growing problem. A member of our Advisory Board, he emailed me last week in reference to my item on the Alabama case (and kindly gave me permission to publish his email, which describes a local case that struck him and offers teens some things to consider if they're ever tempted to share intimate photos online or on phones):

"I have to agree that it would not be in the best interest of the kids to have them charged with a federal crime," Detective Dannahey wrote. "I really don’t believe they understand the implications of what they are doing. You and I have been talking about this topic for a long time [see his description of a 13-year-old Connecticut girl's ordeal in "Teen photos and a police officer's story," January 2006].

"I can’t tell you how many of these cases I have had to deal with or assist other agencies with," he continued. "The long-term implications for these kids can be serious - not to mention the initial humiliation and embarrassment. I see these photos becoming an instrument in online bullying/harassment.

"I just recently closed a case in which a middle school girl shared nude photos of herself to males she met through IM sessions. In a different twist, the girl told me that she gave them (sent) the photos after being 'intimidated' online by the boys," he wrote. "This is a very shy girl one would not expect to do this sort of thing. The girl told me that the boys she communicated with had a sort of 'power' over her in manipulating her to do something that she never thought she could do [which sounds to me like the Georgia case]. She was highly embarrassed by it. This was something that I had not heard before. When kids do this sort of thing it is usually meant to be a private thing between boyfriends/girlfriends. Of course we all know that teen love doesn’t last forever and, when the breakup happens, these types of photos get 'out there.' This is certainly an issue that I address in programs with parents and teens.

"In cases where a teen sends a 'private' photo to someone and it ends up being leaked to other people, the teen’s question to me is always the same - will anyone else see the image? Unfortunately, my answer to that question is always the same: 'I don’t know'," Dannahey continued. "Years ago, if a paper photo was taken from someone, they could possibly get it back, rip it up, and destroy the negative. Today in the digital age, getting a photo back that has been sent electronically is difficult at best and more likely improbable.

"I will usually tell teens the following when considering the sending of 'private' digital photos/videos to people online: Because digital media is so easily shared and reproduced, you need to consider several things before hitting the Send button:

  • "Are you willing to take the chance that someone other than your intended recipient will see your images?
  • "Will those images be a source of embarrassment or humiliation to you?
  • "Are you willing to take the chance that the images may be a 'career killer' or prevent you from some future opportunity?
  • "Will the images/videos that you send violate the law?"

    Readers, if anything like this has come up at your house or school, please share your experiences - or post them in our forum at ConnectSafely.org. Thank you! Fellow parents or educators can benefit from your experience.

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