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Thursday, April 02, 2009

Now available: Tips to prevent 'sexting'

Hey, readers. Will you help us spread the word and make "sexting" a short-lived trend (by minimizing the number of children being prosecuted!)? We just posted our Tips to Prevent Sexting at They're based on solid research - conversations with police, prosecutors, and legal scholars at local, state, and federal levels). If we missed or muddied anything, feedback most welcome! In any case, we think that, once they have the facts, teens themselves will help minimize this problem.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Sexting overblown? Yes and *no*

Not having heard the term "sexting" before the San Francisco Chronicle interviewed her, one 17-year-old referred to the practice of sending nude images of one's self or peers on phones as "lame" and plain-old drama creation. Her comment "echoes a view shared by sexual-health educators, teen advocates and academics gathering in San Francisco [last] week for Sex Tech, a conference that promotes sexual health among youth through technology. They believe that the sexting 'trend' is a cultural fascination du jour and is way overblown," the Chronicle reports. But, they indicate, it's also a very risky way to act out normative sexual curiosity (if that's what's involved and not peer pressure or bullying).

Where minors are concerned, sexting is definitely not overblown. Besides the psychological consequences of teens having intimate photos of themselves sent or posted anywhere, anytime, in perpetuity, the practice is illegal. Under current child pornography laws, taking, sending, and receiving nude photos of minors is production, distribution, and possession of child pornography. Right now these laws are extremely black-and-white and don't distinguish between sexting and "traditional" child porn trafficking. The piece in the UK's Daily Mail I blogged about last week suggests that sexting is becoming a social norm, and a recent survey said a third of young adults and 20% of teens had posted nude or semi-nude photos or video of themselves (which also means 80% haven't, sex educators pointed out in the Chronicle). The 20% figure seems high, but even if sexting is becoming normative, the bottom line is: the law hasn't caught up with the norm and - as long as bullying is, if not a norm, a reality of adolescent life - where teens are involved, concern about sexting is justified! They need to be educated about both the legal and psychological consequences (see also "The Net effect"). My hope is that law enforcement people called in by schools to deal with these cases will treat them as "teachable moments" and play an educational role - not send these cases to prosecutors. [Last week I blogged about a wise district attorney who does not want them to reach his desk.]

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Monday, March 16, 2009

Kids as inadvertent child pornographers

To sometimes tragic effect, that is what the usually impulsive, unthinking behavior behind sexting can lead to: child child pornographers. "A growing number of teens are ending up in serious trouble for sending racy photos with their cellphones. Police have investigated more than two dozen teens in at least six states this year for sending nude images of themselves in cellphone text messages, which can bring a charge of distributing child pornography," USATODAY reports. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children told USATODAY that, of the 2,100 children it has identified as victims of online porn, a quarter of them "initially sent the images themselves" - photos that can end up mixed in with adult-produced child-abuse images circulating online (Austrian police just reported breaking up a child porn ring operating in 170 countries, the International Herald Tribune reports). Two teens 15 and 18 were recently charged with soliciting and possessing child porn with the intent to distribute after seeking nude pictures from three other kids, one in elementary school, USATODAY adds. This is why I feel critical thinking - about what they send and upload as much as what they receive and download - is essential to youth online safety going forward. Have your kids either read this item or the full USATODAY piece, and they'll probably think twice about being manipulated or impulsive in this way and may even help a friend avoid being so. [See also "Social media literacy: The new Internet safety," "Teen suicide over sexting," and a number of other NFN items on sexting.]

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Is 'sexting' a teen trend?: Study

Just how pervasive is 'sexting,' the nude-photo-sharing by cellphone that seems to be happening a lot? I've seen reports of the practice in more than a dozen US states, New Hampshire the latest one (see this). A new study tried to get a handle on just how much this is happening, if not why. The survey, commissioned by the nonprofit National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and, found that "about a third of young adults 20-26 and 20% of teens say they've sent or posted naked or semi-naked photos or videos of themselves, mostly to be 'fun or flirtatious'," USATODAY reports, adding that "a third of teen boys and 40% of young men say they've seen nude or semi-nude images sent to someone else; about a quarter of teen girls and young adult women have. And 39% of teens and 59% of those ages 20-26 say they've sent suggestive text messages." All this in spite of the fact that nearly three-quarters of these young people (73%) "said they knew sending sexually suggestive content 'can have serious negative consequences'."

As for the why question, that 73% finding didn't surprise me - I suspect most teens know full well this is risky behavior. But since when did awareness of risk stop risky behavior among teens or in any way reduce the cachet it often has for them? Then there's the brain-development factor, explaining why risk assessment is a primary task of adolescence. Neurologists tell us the frontal cortex, the impulse-control, executive part of the brain, is in development till everybody's early-to-mid-20s. Generally speaking, their brains just aren't there yet, where fully understanding the implications of their actions is concerned (why caring adults need to be a part of the online, tech-enabled part of their lives).

There are also the realities of technology and sexual content. In her coverage of the survey, Jacqui Cheng of ArsTechnica suggests this is the next phase of the long-standing phenomenon of inappropriate content in email - "since the age of 12, my inbox has been filled with inappropriate photos of people, whether I wanted to see them or not," she writes. That sounds a little extreme to me, but sex-related spam has been around almost as long as email and does seem to be at least part of the wallpaper of online life. In the journal Pediatrics, researchers at the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center wrote in 2005 that "exposure to online porn might have reached the point where it can be characterized as normative among youth Internet users, especially teenage boys. Medical practitioners, educators, other youth workers, and parents should assume that most boys of high school age that use the Internet have some degree of exposure to online pornography, as do girls."

Back to teen-produced content, NBC's Today Show covered the sexting survey in light of a story concerning video-sharing on the Web even though nudity was not involved....

Fast-food & other pranks: Why?

Risque behavior recorded in video-sharing or social-networking sites is not about the Web or technology so much as it's about age-old teenage pranks and dares. The latest high-profile example involved three bikini-clad girls who - apparently influenced by a YouTube video of a similar "exploit" at Burger King - "bathed" in a KFC dishwashing tub as re-recorded by NBC's Today Show. The difference here, of course - and where new technologies do have a role - is how extremely public these antics can become.

"Well, first let's look at the why," writes a mobile-communications blogger, pointing to another factor in all this self-exposure: our sexualized culture. "These girls have grown up on-screen, be it in home movies or MySpace profiles." Here's the most interesting part of the post: "Their lives are lived in the story - the telling and the showing. They also think that their value lies in their bodies. This is part of pop culture. Heck, it's almost an honor for actresses to pose for Maxim, Playboy and the like. But also keep in mind that girls probably don’t intend for these to go public (though they will, of course…)." Several thought-provoking points, there, including that last one about some video "actors" thinking they're just playing to their own circle of friends, not potentially everyone on the Internet and for virtually all time (there's more reflection on this at YPulse).

There's an inherent, important contradiction there, too - just acting out for one's friends but with the potential for overnight YouTube fame lurking in the back of one's mind. Being sex objects in a sexualized culture is only one possible element. Reality TV's insta-fame has been suggested as a likely factor, too. "Kids are getting all these messages saying, 'Expose, expose, expose'," social-media and digital-youth researcher danah boyd told me when I was researching our 2006 book, MySpace Unraveled. "If you don't, your friends will expose you. We're all living in a superpublic environment, getting the message that you have more power if you expose yourself than if someone else exposes you." A master of managing her superpublic is Taylor Smith, 18, described by the New York Times as "the most remarkable country music breakthrough artist of the decade." Is her very smart, open PR strategy what some teens are emulating (or vice versa!)?

For more about this pressure on teens to self-expose as always-on, one-person PR firms, see "Not actually 'extreme teens'."

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Teens' nude photo-sharing in NH

New Hampshire is the latest state where there have been reports of teens passing around via cellphones nude photos of peers. "Students at Salem High School were allegedly circulating graphic photos of fellow, underage female students among themselves via cell phone, prompting a police investigation," the New Hampshire Union Leader reports. Police said photos of at least two girls were disseminated by both boys and girls to a "significant number of students" but not throughout the entire student body of 2,300. The Caledonian Record later reported that "police, prosecutors and school officials ... are warning students that ... taking, possessing and distributing explicit pictures of children is a crime." The school held an assembly Monday night to inform students that the photos constituted "pornography," the Eagle-Tribune reported, leaving "at least one parent" upset that it did more to spread rumors than provide facts. For stories in other states about this trend, see "Naked photo-sharing trend" and "Nude photo-sharing: Q from a family that's been there."

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Thursday, October 09, 2008

13-year-old detained on child-porn charges

The Texas boy was one of an unspecified number of kids at his middle school who received a nude picture of another student on his cellphone, Dallas-area station WFAA reports. The 8th-grade girl in the photo had taken the picture of herself and sent it to "multiple guys," another female student told WFAA. So far, the boy is the only recipient who has been charged. "Police and the school district are not discussing actions against any of the other students," according to WFAA. The boy was "arrested Monday and suspended from school," then "spent the night in a juvenile detention center." The report does not say why the boy was singled or who informed the police. I'll let you know if any more info on this disturbing story emerges.

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Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Felony charges for teen nude-photo sharer

A 15-year-old girl in Ohio has been arrested and charged for "taking nude cell phone photos of herself and sending them to high school classmates," reports. "On Monday, she entered denials to juvenile charges of illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material and possession of criminal tools. A spokeswoman for the Ohio attorney general's office says an adult convicted of the child pornography charge would have to register as a sexual offender, but a judge would have flexibility on the matter with a convicted juvenile." A prosecutor told Fox News that authorities are also considering charging students who received the photos. The girl spent the weekend in jail, the Arizona Republic reports. [Thanks to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children for pointing out this story.]

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Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Where do these parents come from?!

This mom seems to have gone to the Lori Drew school of parenting. "Police are investigating whether an Elgin [Ill.] woman used nude photos of her daughter's 13-year-old ex-boyfriend as blackmail to get the two back together," the Chicago area's Daily Herald reports. As of yesterday (10/6), charges hadn't been filed, but the police say they're "actively pursuing counts of intimidation, harassment and child pornography possession." The investigation began when the boy's parents complained about receiving "hundreds of threatening emails and text messages" after the breakup. "The parents told police their son admitted he and the girl had taken naked photos of themselves while dating, sharing them with each other with their cell phones," according to the Daily Herald. "The parents said that after the breakup the girl's mother told the boy she'd tell his parents about the images of him and post them online unless the youngsters started seeing each other again." She also allegedly created an email account the kids could use unbeknownst to the boy's parents. A small but growing category of online-safety risk: parents. [Thanks to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children for pointing this story out.]

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Friday, May 23, 2008

CT students shared nude photos

In yet another state, middle and high school students in Westport, Connecticut, "have been sharing nude pictures of themselves electronically, the school district's superintendent told parents this week." The Greenwich (Conn.) Time reported that Superintendent Elliott Landon wrote in a letter to parents that the photos had been sent to "countless people" in and beyond Westport. He said "electronic transmission, or receipt of sexually explicit or pornographic material in which students are engaged 'when discovered, will be addressed through the criminal justice system'." The article doesn't say if the photos had been shared via Web or cellphones, but the superintendent suggested that parents monitor their kids' use of both. So far I've seen reports of this trend in at least nine states (see this about those).

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Felony charges for teen in nude photo posting

A 17-year-old boy in La Crosse, Wisc., has been charged with possession of child pornography, sexual exploitation of a child, and defamation for posting nude photos of a 16-year-old girl on his MySpace page, the Chicago Tribune reports. "According to the criminal complaint, Phillips was told he could be jailed for posting the photos but told police he would still keep them on the page." According to, the girl, his ex-girlfriend, had taken the photos of herself "but was upset and didn’t give him permission to distribute the photos anywhere else." The boy is being held in a county jail "on a $1,000 cash bond and has a preliminary hearing set for May 28." According to some reports, the photos were sent to him via cellphone (see this on nude photo-sharing). In a similar case reported last August, a teen was sentenced to 30 days in prison on child abuse charges (see this item).

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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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