This is and isn’t about technology. Mostly isn’t. But digital media allow for and expose a dangerous blend of two very different aspects of humanness, one destructive, the latter normative: social cruelty and teenage vulnerability (a lot of focus recently having been on the female variety).
The cruelty, the extreme version called trolling – which feeds on outrage and weaponizes cultural sensitivities – got a lot of media attention when the Gawker blog “outed” an anonymous troll on the popular site Reddit.com (see ReadWriteWeb on that story and the subsequent public shaming). Feminist writer Soraya Chemali pointed out some examples on a Facebook page, some of which FB has deleted (I wrote about that here). Another example is “doxing” (also spelled “doxxing”), which UrbanDictionary.com defines as…
“a technique of tracing someone or gather[ing] information about an individual using sources on the internet. Its name is derived from ‘Documents’ or ‘Docx’…. [It's based] on the ability of the hacker to recognize valuable information about his target and use this information to his benefit. It is also based around the idea that, ‘The more you know about your target, the easier it will be to find his or her flaws’ [or vulnerabilities].”
Then there’s “parasite porn,” whether a personal attack or completely impersonal and automated (there’s an intention spectrum, but probably mostly the latter, which of course doesn’t lessen harm when people are victimized). The latter form is likely what a recent article in The Guardian is about, or rather a new study it covered by the Internet Watch Foundation in the UK which has gotten some pushback from several US scholars. The IWF found that “88% of self-made sexual or suggestive images and videos posted by young people, often on social networking sites, are taken from their original online location and uploaded on to other websites,” The Guardian reported.
“While the startling percentage should be worth noting,” writes sexuality educator Kris Gowen at Portland State University in her blog, “it’s also important to note that only those photos that somehow were available to the public (either through low privacy settings on social networking sites, or through unfortunate theft/forwarding [aka harassment or bullying]) were counted in this research. Also, the sample seems to be all pictures of teens, not just sexually explicit ones. No information as to whether sexually explicit pictures comprised a sizable percentage of the pictures analyzed, nor whether they were more or less likely to be found on those third-party sites.”
As if to echo Dr. Gowen’s point, Prof. Elizabeth Englander at Bridgewater State University wrote: “The study was done only on photos that were posted online in social networking sites. That’s very different from a pic that’s simply texted between two people, and never posted anywhere. The study cited the ‘parasite’ sites – these are sites that use automation to ‘crawl’ available photos on social networking sites (those without appropriate settings, I assume, although I don’t know if some parasite sites get to so-called private profiles too). They upload any and all photos” – not necessarily nude ones.
What Gowen and Englander are indicating, here, is that in the vast majority of cases, “parasite porn” is not intentional personal social cruelty. It’s a significant problem that’s monumentally callous because it involves the abuse of technology (and exploitation of human vulnerability) that “vacuums” up photos in its path and reposts them elsewhere, but it’s not personal and – to Gowen’s point – we don’t even know how much of it is nude or sexually explicit and so how much of it would be humiliating and thus harmful.
The Guardian is pretty muddy about the means of distribution of teen photos to these “other Web sites.” If by mobile phone, a study conducted by the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center found that only 10% of photos sent by phone are distributed on the Web, where intention and thus cruelty would be involved.
The self-respect imperative
Which brings us to the teenage vulnerability piece. Kris Gowen refers to it as “the horrible tension between wanted and unwanted attention” in a blog post entitled “The desire to be desired.” And that’s the crux of the vulnerability. Being in a developmental “place” where a person is just hitting puberty and only beginning to test out, much less understand, what “desirable” means, while getting different and changing messages about what it means from various people you look up to – from loved ones to celebrities to “trusted brands.” It’s an age-old need newly and unprecedentedly reflected, for example, in the “Am I Pretty?” videos. And this testing’s going on while everything’s changing, internally and externally, including the developmental imperative to figure out who you are in relation to a family you’ll soon be moving out of and to the world around you – including a media environment that, among other things, objectifies and sexualizes young females. Figuring out what’s desirable in an appropriate way for your own context, values, and identity (as it’s forming) is a tall order all by itself, even without the social media piece.
For example, blogger Emily Heist Moss wrote about where that leaves a teenage girl: For a middle school girl, social media “is the perfect tool to test those boundaries and get instant feedback from the people who matter to her most, her peers…. She’s stuck between a rock and a hard place” where “the wiggle room … that sweet spot between being wanted and being respected – is all but non-existent.” And yet being in that tight spot somehow “still matters more than anything,” unless older friends, mentors, or parents help her see she – herself, not her image – matters more than anything.
So at this convergence, media literacy, reputation management, etc. go much deeper than “don’t post any photos you wouldn’t want your grandmother to see.” They must be about fostering self-respect – thinking about what that looks like, online or offline. Because, ultimately, respect for self and others is vital protection in this user-driven social media environment.
- Resilience, respect for self and others, and community are the bedrock of online safety, as well as the offline kind, in this social media era, and in different community contexts – school- and sports-related gatherings and even babysitting – older girls are passing what they’ve learned about “wanted and unwanted attention” to younger ones, media literacy activist Amy Jussel of ShapingYouth.org told me. The high credibility that teens have with younger peers should be cause to consider peer-mentoring as a very viable approach to fostering self-respect and, as Amy put it, “appreciation without denigration.”
- A dip into young girls’ media environment from ShapingYouth.org: “Mattel’s Manipulative Monster High Marketing Machine,” where media literacy activist Amy Jussel writes, “When Mattel tried to backpedal from the toxic messages in their webisodes that had been repeatedly called out by media literacy and adolescent development pros in social media channels, they spun into brand damage control by partnering with the Kind Campaign (young filmmakers with access to schools promoting an ‘anti-bullying’ documentary program). Mainstream media lapped it up” (e.g., the New York Times).
- About Elizabeth Englander’s recently released study on teen sexting
- “The war on 12-year-old girls” in Salon.com
- And this might be a helpful place to link to a recent Huffington Post article about all the good news on US children’s safety by David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center –e.g., new Bureau of Justice Statistics “showing a 68% percent decline since 1993 in children’s direct and indirect violent crime exposure” and “major declines in sexual abuse and caregiver physical abuse,” bullying, teen suicide and suicidal thinking, while “school safety has improved dramatically.” The new data’s showing the improvements to be holding steady – see this about a talk Dr. Finkelhor gave about this two years ago.