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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]

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 Thank you! Fellow parents or educators can benefit from your experience.

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  • Online-safety myths & tips

    Of course, I'm biased in liking the message in my ConnectSafely co-director's column at But Larry Magid debunks the prevailing myths about teen safety on the social Web and offers what we feel is the best way to approach sticky situations that come up. For example: "For adults - whether parents, teachers, administrators or authorities - it’s important to listen and provide support to a child or teen who is scared, worried or bothered by such contact but not to over-react or 'punish the victim' by taking away Internet privileges or forcing them to avoid using social networking sites or other services. The fear of an adult overreacting is one of the reasons many teens give for not coming forward if they have a problem. And parents need to know that taking away a teen’s online privileges could backfire by prompting him or her to go into stealth mode by finding hidden ways to get online."

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    Net-safety training for UK 5-year-olds?

    Britain's Conservatives say children as young as five will be taught about online safety and privacy and computer security, The Times of London reports. They're criticizing the government for "not doing enough to raise awareness among children of the dangers posed by cyber-crime," The Times adds. The Conservatives are also proposing the reestablishment of "a national police unit given over to cyber-crime."


    Thursday, March 20, 2008

    China: World's biggest Net population

    The US, which since the beginning of the Web, has had the biggest online population, has been passed by China this year, The Register reports. "Data released earlier this year by the government-run China Internet Network Information Center said that China's internet users totaled 210 million at the end of 2007. US web analyst Nielsen/NetRatings put the American total at 216 million for the same period." And while we're on statistics, here are the "Top 10 most popular Web sites" in the world, blogged about in, citing Alexa rankings. Looking at social sites, YouTube is second, MySpace and Facebook are 5th and 6th, respectively, and is No. 8. Orkut, a Google property along with YouTube, comes in at 10th.

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    AOL to buy Bebo

    Though Bebo users probably won't notice much of a difference at first, AOL recently announced it would acquire the social-networking site very popular among teens, particularly British ones. The $850 million acquisition "reflects the high hopes that big media companies like Time Warner [AOL's parent] have for social networking, which they see as a potentially lucrative way to bring together online consumers, media owners and advertisers," the International Herald Tribune reports. This may be a sign of coming consolidation in the part of the social Web dominated by companies (there's plenty of grassroots Web too - see my item this week about mini-MySpaces and all that individuals can do on their own on the participatory Web). Speaking of which, here's Le Monde's social-networking world map, putting Bebo in the No. 1 spot in the UK and Europe, but with some qualification from Jupiter Research.

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    Many mini-MySpace options now

    This blog post could be eye-opening for parents or anyone who might think putting any single social site's feet to the fire would take care of teen social-Web safety problems: TechCrunch looks at "Nine Ways to Build Your Own Social Network". In other words, if MySpace or Facebook somehow went away - besides the option of simply moving to another social site based in the US or not - teens of course have the option to create their own personal social-networking site (this is really no different from the days when it seemed novel to be able to create your own blog, and services like Blogger made it supremely easy with templates and color schemes, etc.). I've written about Ning in the past (see "Do-it-yourself social sites" and "Mini-MySpaces"). Now Ning is just one of nine such sites in a single category of the possibilities available for personal social sites (not pages or profiles or blogs but entire mini-Facebooks, -Bebos, or -MySpaces). The services in this first category are hosted by the service (for free, and anyone can create his/her site in 10 minutes or less). The other two categories get higher-end; the first type you put on your own server, which is no big deal for many teens; the third is more a business solution, where a company custom-builds a social site for its client. I'm sure the state attorneys general have been focusing on MySpace for so long are aware of this, right?

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    Wednesday, March 19, 2008

    No teacher rating in France

    Not online, anyway. A French court cracked down on a teacher-rating site based in that country: Like US-based sites and, Note2be encouraged students to grade and discuss their teachers' capabilities. The judges said the site "could no longer identify any teachers by name and told the site's owners they faced a $1,517 (1,000 euro) fine for every infraction," Reuters reports. Note2be encouraged rating in six categories: "how interesting, clear, fair, available, respectful and motivated" teachers were, and - like its US and UK counterparts, "it also set up a rankings system to promote France's top 10 teachers." As with most participatory sites, it was a two-edged sword, the downside being plenty of opportunity for libel and defamation and an upside that possibly gave public exposure to both bad and good teaching.

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    Tuesday, March 18, 2008

    Imposter profiles: No easy solution

    Imposter profiles are one form of cyberbullying or online harassment certainly not restricted to youth. Tweens, teens, and adults create profiles that impersonate the people they want to harass, putting them in an embarrassing or defaming light. There are also simply fake profiles of imaginary people aimed at tricking the real people who "befriend" the imaginary people in the fake profiles, which is what happened in the Megan Meier case (see "Extreme cyberbullying: US case comes to light." In a well-reported article, describes a few actual imposter-profile cases and how hard it is to make them go away. Part of the problem is that, online, it's much easier to set up a profile than it is to prove its harmful intent or impact. Some people who click the "Report Abuse" buttons in sites are actually being abusive - of the site as well as their peers. "MySpace includes a link at the bottom of every profile to report abuse, but many people misuse this to harass someone who has posted a legitimate profile," ConsumerAffairs reports. The article includes no solutions to this growing problem because there simply are no known ones besides better, more civil behavior on everybody's part and education aimed at that and at the fact that we're not as anonymous online as we all think we are. ConsumerAffairs also goes into the law and how little it can do in these cases.

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    Monday, March 17, 2008

    Teens info-swamped too

    A head school librarian suggests that our digitally literate teens are no different from any of us as we slog through our collective information overload. "These kids manage to survive by bushwhacking through the muddle – while seamlessly dealing with an email, a Word document, or a 50-page PDF from the scholarly database JSTOR," writes Thomas Washington of the Potomac School in McLean, Va., in the Christian Science Monitor. "It's taken them just a few years to arrive at the same conclusion that I've reached after a lifetime of sustained reading: The pursuit of knowledge in the age of information overload is less about a process of acquisition than about proficiency in tossing stuff out." In other words, we're *all* reading less in-depth and filtering more. This is good in some ways - because, if Mr. Washington's right, teens are quite naturally, or by necessity, developing the critical thinking that will not only help them cope with the info flood, but also to maintain a safe skepticism not only about what's communicated to them online, but what they choose to communicate and upload themselves. Let's help them consciously cultivate that filtering capability!

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    Teens to be sex offenders for life? tells the story of Ricky, who, when he was 16, "went to a teen club and met a girl named Amanda, who said she was the same age. They hit it off and were eventually having sex. At the time Ricky thought it was a pretty normal high school romance. Two years later, Ricky is a registered sex offender and his life is destroyed." It turned out Amanda was 13, below the age of consent, and Ricky was tried as an adult. LACityBeat not only looks at how new laws will affect juvenile offenders but also how they affect the victims, as well as the families of both offender and victim. Very difficult issues, here, that deserve thought and care.