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Friday, May 02, 2008

Nude photo-sharing: Q from a family that's been there

In response to my feature "Naked photo-sharing trend," "Marcia" in New Jersey emailed me about her own daughter's extremely difficult experience with sharing a photo of herself. With Marcia's permission, I sent her story and question about it to psychiatrist Jerald Block in Oregon and Det. Frank Dannahey, a youth division officer in Connecticut and with everybody's permission (for privacy protection, "Marcia" is not her real name), I'm sharing their perspectives here....

"Just recently my 14-year-old daughter, a freshman in high school, sent a nude picture of herself to a boy who sent it to someone else, then a few girls got it and proceeded to send it everywhere. This was a total shock of course that my daughter would take a picture, but trying to be an understanding parent in this world, I listened carefully and stayed calm. She said that the boy bugged her and bugged her until she could not take it anymore. The school is trying to handle this.... My daughter went to a counselor at school and talked about it. She does not know why she did it but my feeling is the boy egged her on until she felt she had to, and now she knows she never should feel like she is being controlled by somebody.

"My question is, even though it is going to be hard for her to go back to school, the school is telling me that it is best for her and I think it is best that she just not talk about it with anyone. But I feel that these kids that have been spreading this around should realize that it is a "criminal act" and that is where I stand now and don't know how to approach it. I don't want to take anyone to court and she is suffering enough from her own mistake - I want her to be able to get back to her life and enjoy it. She knows she made a stupid mistake and she has to live with that. Also, her picture did not have her face at all in it, but the girls who sent it around made sure they put her name on it. This was all done by cell phone, not on the Internet."

Detective Dannahey:

"Wow, this 'power of control' seems identical to my case and what the teen involved told me. As far as the criminal side of this, there are a few problems concerning the 'child porn' aspect. I notice that the mom said that her child’s face does not appear in the photo. If this case was to come into my office, the first thing we would have to try doing is to determine 1) if we could prove the photo was of that specific child and 2) if we could not prove that it was in fact that specific child, could we prove that it is a photo of a minor. I have had several cases of this type. In some cases you can use the background in the photo to prove that it was taken in the child’s home, which could be helpful in proving that it is a specific child. If a photo is very clear in detail we might be able to prove who's in the photo by birthmarks, marks on the body, etc. You can also use the file data from the photo to at least give you a time period of when the photo was taken and in this case data from the phone where it was taken from. Lastly, we have taken a child’s photos to a physician who is recognized as a court expert in the area of child exploitation and, based on the child’s development, he or she *might* be able to make a convincing case that the child in the photo is a minor. Would every police department go this far? Maybe not.

"I would say that in this case, you would have a criminal violation in the fact that a group of teens is circulating a nude photo, supposedly of a specific minor, and attaching a name to the photo as being a specific person. This action would obviously cause alarm and humiliation to a teen. In this case, you may or may not prove the 'child porn' aspect of it, but you would certainly have a charge relating to the alarm and humiliation factor. That exact charge would differ from state to state. I know this sounds a little complicated... The fact that this child’s face does not appear in the photo severely complicates this case."

Dr. Block:

"This is a complex and surprisingly common occurrence. I can imagine two different strategies: (1) just wait it out, or (2) notify the police. Transferring the photo is a serious federal crime, so perhaps a police officer would be willing to address the school and educate them at the same time. However, if anyone actually got into trouble, the backlash against the girl might be terrible. Also, by bringing in the police, the issue is prolonged and cemented into the minds of her classmates. Finally, there may be some legal risk to the girl herself. An aggressive prosecutor could come after her (see this). I'd consult a lawyer, then, before talking to the police.

"So, if it were my child, I probably would be inclined to 'do nothing' and let it blow over. However, I would send the daughter to see a therapist so that she would have a safe place to discuss and think through the harassment, which is awfully shaming and painful. Also, I would leave the decision about whether to involve the police or not to her. Giving her that decision (in the context of therapy, where it can be thought through carefully), might give her a greater sense of control over the situation. What a difficult position to be in, as a child or parent."

Related links

In addition to cases this year in Alabama, Pennsylvania, and Georgia (see this item) - as well as the New Jersey one above that may not become a case - three recent reports in the nude photo-sharing trend:

  • Wisconsin: Two 17-year-old Hudson, Wisc., boys "were charged with misdemeanors for being party to defamation of character in the April 1 incident, which started when a girl used her cell phone to send nude pictures of herself to male friends" - by the Associated Press in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
  • Ohio: "Trading Nude Photos Via Mobile Phone Now Part of Teen Dating, Experts Say" - story about teens in Columbus from the Associated Press at
  • Utah: "Cell phone nudes" - A 15-year-old Farmington, Utah, boy is charged "one felony count of dealing material harmful to a minor, and three misdemeanor lewdness counts. The charges come in the wake of a growing trend among Utah teenagers who trade nude photos of themselves over cell phones." Archived at the Salt Lake Tribune.

    More recently two stories from New York and Minnesota, and later an AP article referring to other cases in Alabama, Connecticut, Wisconsin, and Texas....

  • Minnesota: Students cautioned to avoid cellphone, Web pitfalls" in the Pioneer Press
  • New York: "Pioneer School District finds nude photos on students cellphones" in the Buffalo News

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    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    I agree with Dr. Block. Let it settle down. After reading this I find the Mother is putting the blame on the teenage boy. I don't 100% agree with this. It's unfortunate that there is so much junk on TV, it's easy to access anything on the internet these days. There is pier pressure that forces our children to grow up too fast. It is unbelievable the teenage sex that is taking place. But on the other hand 80 years ago my grandmother was married and had a child at 15. No one thought a thing about it back then.

    2:28 PM  
    Anonymous Denise said...

    This is the craziest thing I've heard about as a parent. My younger daughter is 16 and she tells me this is going on all the time - and we live in a small town in Florida.

    11:26 AM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    It is easy to imagine the humiliation Marcia's daughter felt; girls at that age are humiliated when a zit appears on prom night. But what those classmates did was the moral equivalent of hiding a girl’s bra when she’s in the shower after gym.

    Look more closely at who did what to whom. Marcia’s daughter took a picture of herself naked (or let someone else take it). Is this wrong? No! Immoral? No! Indecent? No! Obscene? No! Pornographic? No! Risky? Duh!

    Then she kept the photo on her cell phone. Then she sent copies to several people (no girl would send that kind of photo to a boy before sending it to her girlfriends). Then her classmates did what anyone over 14 would have predicted; they distributed the photo more widely, in a way specifically intended to embarrass her. This is what adolescents do. Let’s hope that adults do not try to convince the girl that what she did or what her classmates did was anything more than bad judgment on her part and a practical joke on theirs.

    Detective Dannahey appears ready to take this adolescent prank and turn it into something criminal, but what those kids did was not pornographic. When adults confuse adolescent pranks with criminal pornography, we make it hard for our children to understand the difference between the two.

    It may well be that sending a nude photo by telephone is illegal where Marcia lives, but so is selling a cup of hot coffee without warning the purchaser that it’s hot. As adults, the responsibility we have to teach our children what is right and what is wrong is monumentally more important (and difficult) than teaching them to obey laws.

    1:49 AM  

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