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February 16, 2007

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Teens' child-porn convictions upheld: Tragic case

It's not known how the police heard about it, but two Florida teenagers were prosecuted for taking sexually explicit photos of themselves and "distributing" them in violation of child-pornography laws. Last month a Florida state appeals court ruled 2-1 to uphold their conviction, CNET reports. What happened was, 'Amber' (16) and 'Jeremy' (17) [not their real names] took more than 100 "digital photos of themselves naked and engaged in unspecified 'sexual behavior.' The two sent the photos from a computer at Amber's house to Jeremy's personal email address. Neither teen showed the photographs to anyone else." They were both charged with "producing, directing or promoting" child pornography, and "Jeremy was charged with an extra count of possession of child pornography."

What this case establishes, CNET reports, is that, in Florida, it's legal for two minors to have sex, but "they're criminals if they document it." Criminals, and yet - as the appeals court itself wrote - "children ... not mature enough to make rational decisions concerning all the possible negative implications of producing these videos."

Why were the courts so categorical? parents might ask. According to the majority decision, this was "the least intrusive means of furthering the State's compelling interest in preventing the sexual exploitation of children." The court was basically saying that Florida law requires the state to prevent the production and distribution of photos like these as a form of child exploitation, regardless of whether their producers were minors or adults.

In effect, the fact that Amber and Jeremy are minors worked against them. For example, Amber's attorney argued that her conviction denied her right to privacy, but the appeals court wrote, "Minors who are involved in a sexual relationship, unlike adults who may be involved in a mature committed relationship, have no reasonable expectation that their relationship will continue and that the photographs will not be shared with others intentionally or unintentionally." So, the argument seems to be, the court can assume the photos would likely be shared and their subjects distributors of child pornography.

"The reasonable expectation that the material will ultimately be disseminated is by itself a compelling state interest for preventing the production of this material," the majority opinion continued. "In addition, the statute was intended to protect minors like appellant and her co-defendant from their own lack of judgment.

This case is no anomaly; this is one of the key challenges for the field of online safety going forward: how to protect teens from themselves and each other - teens, who - as prominent pediatrician Sharon Cooper points out - are sexually but not yet mentally mature (see links below). Here are other examples, in Connecticut and Virginia in 2005 and in India and New York in 2004; and it was the behavior at the heart of the Justin Berry case (see also this commentary at the beginning of last year's political and media storm against social networking, which - as you can see from the above cases - was not the start of or the only communications technology involved in this children's online-safety challenge).

What can parents do? Aside from the equally important ethical lessons families will draw from cases like these is the online-safety lesson. Young Internet and digital-media users need to know about the four characteristics of online digital media (from social-media research danah boyd at Alternet):

Another key take-away: Young people's tech literacy needs the support of caring adults' life literacy as they navigate the choppy, uncharted waters of the social Web.

Related links

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Web News Briefs
  1. Cool new online-safety projects

    They tackle the challenge of protecting online kids on two levels: in the home and at the strategic level. The household part is addressed with a new "4-1-1" service at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC). Up until now, the Center's has offered the public more of a "9-1-1" service in the area of child exploitation. Now it's covering the info-gathering part of the picture, NCMEC CEO Ernie Allen told's Larry Magid in an interview for CBS News. At the strategic level is the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), launched this week in Washington, D.C., and next week in London. Basically designed to foster and promote the best thinking in children's online safety, "the Institute will bring together the leading thinkers, innovative technologies, effective educators, and enlightened legislators to make [safety awareness] a reality," said its CEO, Stephen Balkam. On the tech front, the Institute will fold in and carry on the work of ICRA, the Internet Content Rating Association (Larry Magid and I are serving on FOSI's advisory council, so we have a bias about this development). Here's Larry's article at CBS News.

  2. Teen dating abuse: Study, hotline

    A just-released study of teen dating abuse found that 71% of teens (13-18) "regard boyfriends/girlfriends spreading rumors about them on cellphones and social-networking sites as a serious problem, and 68% say friends sharing private or embarrassing photos or videos is a serious problems. The survey, sponsored by Liz Claiborne, Inc., as part of its 16-year focus on stopping domestic violence, also found that "a significant majority of parents are completely unaware of this type of dating abuse." The study is part of a national education campaign that also includes a 24-hour hotline (866-331-9474) that Liz Claiborne has committed to help fund for three years. The confidential teen hotline is operated by the Austin-based National Domestic Violence Hotline. Here's USATODAY on the hotline and Reuters on all of this. Here are other key survey findings:

    • "24% of teens in a relationship communicated with their partner via cellphone or texting hourly between midnight and 5 am."
    • "30% say they are text messaged 10, 20, 30 times an hour by a partner inquiring where they are, what they're doing, or who they're with.
    • "67% of parents whose teens were checked up on 30 times per day on their cell phone were unaware this was happening.
    • "25% of teens say they have been called names, harassed, or put down by their partner through cellphones and texting.
    • "71% of parents were unaware that their teen is afraid of not responding to a cell phone call, text or IM massage or email for fear of what their partner might do."

  3. Proposed IL law: Ban social sites

    The proposed law would ban social-networking sites from public schools and libraries in the state of Illinois. The legislation appears similar to the Delete Online Predators Act (DOPA) that was passed by the House last year but died before the Senate could vote, only more sweeping, CNET reports. "For one thing, the House version applied only to those schools and libraries that receive federal funding under the E-Rate program." But the Illinois law "would apply to social-networking sites on all publicly accessible library computers - apparently without regard for whether the user was a child - and on all computers 'made available' to students at public schools." As for DOPA, it may've found new life: "This new version of DOPA, already called DOPA Jr., was introduced by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK)" last month, a ClickZ News blog reported. Writing about DOPA for CBS News last summer, my co-director Larry Magid quipped that "maybe the law should be called DOTA (the Delete Online Teenagers Act)" because, "rather than 'deleting' online predators, it [would've] deleted the ability of schools and libraries to determine whether kids can constructively take advantage of social networking and other interactive services that are extremely popular among teens." New legislation under consideration in Washington would do a better job of actually "deleting" predators - by establishing a national sex-offender registry and requiring that offenders register Internet contact information as well as offline info (see 12/8/06).

  4. Court dismisses suit against MySpace

    A US district court in Texas this week dismissed a negligence lawsuit filed last June by the family of a girl who was sexually assaulted by someone she met on MySpace, Reuters reports. "In dismissing the suit, Judge [Sam] Sparks said that as an 'interactive service,' MySpace was protected from materials posted on its site by the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996." The law "generally grants immunity to interactive computer services such as MySpace so that they are not liable for content posted by users," the Associated Press reports in its coverage of this development. "If anyone had a duty protect Julie Doe, it was her parents, not MySpace," the court ruled," ASPnews reported. Judge Sparks also "noted that the girl lied about her age, posing as an 18-year-old when she was only 13," Reuters added. The minimum age at MySpace is 14. The family said it would appeal the dismissal. (Here's my item on this case last June.)

  5. Acting out for the videocam

    But that's not all they're doing to up their ratings in video-sharing sites, the New York Times reports: "boys holding cell phones under the lunch table to photograph up girls' skirts; an innocent kiss at a party posted out of context on an ex-boyfriend's Web site; someone bursting in on friends who are in the bathroom or sleeping, drinking or smoking; students goading teachers into tantrums; assaulting homeless people." Maybe with too much time on their hands, they upload the taped exploits to PhotoBucket, YouTube, MySpace, and other user-content sites - including "niche" ones just for this purpose like, according to the Times. "In response to such cyberbullying [such as the "bullying incident on Long Island last December" - see "Teens' fight video"], Steve Levy, the Suffolk County executive, recently asked school districts to designate a staff Internet monitor to watch for Web-posted misbehavior among students." Nancy Willard, author of Cyberbullying and Cyberthreats, told the Times, though it could be damaging to people and property, to teens this activity is both the game of teenage life and the exploring of identity and social relationships. Not that adults aren't involved sometimes in a somewhat exploitative way - read the part about the fence-plowing fad, done by teenagers but started by a young film producer seeking insta-fame.

  6. Teacher's controversial porn conviction

    This really seems to have been a case of guilty until proven innocent, except that the system (prosecutor, jury, etc.) never wanted to give proving this person's innocence a chance. Don't miss this Hartford Courant column about how a Connecticut substitute teacher who doesn't know much about computers and was taught by the school system never to unplug or turn computers off was assigned to a classroom with a computer whose anti-virus and anti-spyware protection had expired on which porn pop-ups kept appearing on screen apparently after students in her classroom inadvertently click to a porn site, and she's tried and convicted for exposing children to adult content. She now faces possible sentencing of up to 40 years in prison (sentencing hasn't occurred yet). Courant columnist Rick Green writes, "A city is being pilloried in news reports across the globe. Amero - an incompetent teacher at worst - is a convicted porn felon. Could we all step back and look for some truth?" Here's the Associate Press's coverage, picked up globally.

  7. Get the family PC patched

    Lots of security patches from Microsoft this month, ZDNET reports - "12 bulletins with patches for at least 20 vulnerabilities in a wide range of widely used software products. Six of the 12 bulletins are rated "critical," Redmond's highest severity rating." A number of the patches address vulnerabilities in Word and Explorer, none are patching any problems with the new Vista operating system upgrade. Windows users should definitely get them all - manually through Windows Update, by automating patches on the family PC, or by using the Windows Live OneCare service.

  8. Students' advice to tech educators

    They should get into the online-safety business, two college students basically suggest. That was "one of the strongest messages for educators" from Darian Shirazi of University of California, Berkeley, and Lorrie Ma of Santa Clara University, speaking at a conference for education IT professionals from around the world, CNET reports. "Universities shouldn't try to restrict access to online information and social-networking sites like MySpace or Facebook. Rather, universities should educate kids on the positives and negatives of those sites and offer best practices for Internet use." Good advice for parents, K-12 educators, and children's advocates too. As for all the very personal info students are uploading to the Web, they made the point that "it would be even weirder if someone didn't exist on the Web." Wouldn't colleges and universities worry about students' ability to use computers and technology if they have no presence on the Web? Ma and Shirazi suggested. Not that Ma didn't have regrets about what she's uploaded in the past - see her account at the end of the piece. See also the online-safety field's latest thinking on kids putting out personal info online, in's Larry Magid's "New Approach to Online Safety Education."

  9. Mobile-socializing numbers

    Many of the photos and videos on MySpace and YouTube reportedly originated on cellphones. So it's only a matter of time before the socializing, too, happens on phones. Here are some of the first figures I've seen. "A number of new media research firms predict that social media is likely to be the tipping point for mobile video adoption," reports. "Research firm eMarketer recently reported that mobile social communities - a grouping of like-minded people interacting on cellphones - should grow from 50 million users worldwide today to 174 million in 2011." But while growth is being seen, US usage is still relatively small. "By the end of the third quarter of 2006, the United States counted about 5.1 million mobile video subscribers, double the number at the end of the first quarter," according to TV Week, citing Telephia researchMany of the photos and videos on MySpace and YouTube reportedly originated on cellphones. So it's only a matter of time before the socializing, too, happens on phones. Here are some of the first figures I've seen. "A number of new media research firms predict that social media is likely to be the tipping point for mobile video adoption," reports. "Research firm eMarketer recently reported that mobile social communities - a grouping of like-minded people interacting on cellphones - should grow from 50 million users worldwide today to 174 million in 2011." But while growth is being seen, US usage is still relatively small. "By the end of the third quarter of 2006, the United States counted about 5.1 million mobile video subscribers, double the number at the end of the first quarter," according to TV Week, citing Telephia research. Another example of growth: "One [mobile social-networking] site, was created in London for users to share their personal space with friends. It's only four months old, but sales director Ben Tatten-Brown says it already has 20,000 registered users. And that, without advertising the site, CNN reports. Another such startup,, went from 0 to 2,000 under-30 users in its first 24 hours, CNN adds. See also "Mobile socializing: Accelerating change."

  10. Social media in the business world

    If anybody thinks social networking's a fad or if parents think it's just frivolity, see this: "The nation's fastest-growing private companies are making use of social media -- including blogs, social networking and podcasts -- at a rate more than twice that of Fortune 500 companies, according to a new study." Fox News is citing a University of Massachusetts survey of companies on the Inc. 500 list to gauge their familiarity with and use of social media. Your children's blogging in Xanga, profile customizing in MySpace, or video producing in Facebook may actually be prepping them for future career experiences, networking, or self-presentation. BTW, you may have seen in tech headlines nationwide that Cisco, which makes networking routers and switches, just acquired a company that makes software which adds social-networking features to businesses' Web sites. Yet another sign that pretty soon any site that ever offered "community" will offer social networking. So, parents, if teens decide MySpace is too safe, they'll soon be able to socialize, openly or secretly, just about anywhere on the Web.

  11. New social site for teen girls

    It's called "Predicated on the notion that young girls have a turbocharged instinct to personalize their stuff, lets its members design and publish 'flipbooks' containing text, images, audio and video," Clickz News reports. It can't be easy for content providers to strike the right balance between allowing advertisers to interact with their young users and protecting young users from exploitation. It appears they think of "transparency" - requiring advertisers to be transparent about their marketing intentions as one protection. A competitor to CondeNet's site is, though preteen girls is its primary target..

  12. EU to ban 'sockpuppets'

    Sockpuppets are marketing blogs made to look like regular people's blogs (or pages or profiles) - they're basically stealth ads. The EU is not only wise to them but planning to ban them (I guess if they're on servers based in Europe), reports, a London-based videogame news site. The law goes into effect at the end of this year. "Those transgressing the new directives will be named and shamed by Trading Standards or taken to court; the law also covers people with a vested interest reviewing their own products on sites such as Amazon.

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That does it for this week. Have a great weekend!


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News

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