Age of Consent and the Internet

An interesting non-case in Oklahoma — two 16-year-old girls, one from Hawaii, one from New York, each flew to Oklahoma to meet a man they communicated with online (note: these girls are both at the age of consent according to the state laws of HI and NY). But since the girls traveled willingly, and they are “of age” according to these particular state laws, there is no crime. But the man bought the plane tickets, so the FBI got involved, based on laws that prohibit “transporting teenagers across state lines for the purpose of sex,” and potential kidnapping charges.

While I appreciate that there are sex trafficking and kidnapping laws in the United States, this might be a situation that is best left to the families, not the legal system.

Tragedy with a lesson

This horrible incident lets us know that it can be adults, not simply youth, who take risks online. According to the Daily News, 47-year-old George Weber was stabbed to death by a “troubled” 16-year-old after the latter responded to Weber’s craigslist post seeking “rough sex.”

I was hesitant to post this for a couple of reasons:
(1) First, what happened here was truly awful and to use it as an example might not be the best idea. But unfortunately, I think it takes something this drastic to have it make the news in the first place.
(2) This incident might be more about the dangers that can result from feeling ashamed of one’s sexuality than about online risks. I certainly don’t know all the specifics here, but it could be that if this man was more comfortable with his sexual desires, and society did not portray his preferences (“rough” sex) as taboo, he could have found a safer way to express them.

But I ultimately made the decision to see if any readers out there have any comments on this and how it might contribute to the dialogue related to online safety.

Thoughtful, yet inaccurate, article

Textual Misconduct: What to do about teens and their dumb naked photos of themselves, by Dahlia Lithwick and featured both on Slate and in Newsweek, addresses the now extremely hot topic of sexting and child pornography. Like many others including myself, she recommends that minors who send sexually explicit photos of themselves NOT be charged with child pornography distribution and their hapless friends should not be guilty of receiving and possessing it. Yet, while researching for this piece, Lithwick discovered that when such cases do result in criminal charges “prosecutors have charged the senders of smutty photos, the recipients of smutty photos, those who save the smutty photos, and [/or] the hapless forwarders of smutty photos” — it just depends on the jurisdiction! Such inconsistencies surely provide an example of how the law is not really equipped to handle this phenomenon.

Despite my overall affinity towards this article, I did want to point out a sensationalizing misrepresentation of the recent survey conducted by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancyaccording to “Textual Misconduct,” this survey has “one teen in five reporting he or she has sent or posted naked photos of himself or herself.” In actuality, the survey reports that one in five teens have posted a “nude or semi-nude [emphasis added] pictures or videos of themselves. Big difference, because in the latter example, a boy would say “yes” to this question if he has a picture of himself shirtless at the beach — a gal might say yes if she has posted a photo of her scantily clad (but not naked). These latter examples of pictures may be problematic, but they do not qualify as child pornography. And thus, the law would not be applicable.

While I hope to see more intelligent dialogue on this topic, I really hope it will be accurate.

More Scandals in Club Penguin!

I adore this post on Net Family News, written by “undercover mom” Sharon Duke Estroff. I love it because it is simple, to the point, and therefore quite powerful.

She tells a story of forbidden love between two penguins that can’t be rivaled even by the last Bachelor series. Posing as just a regular old character in Club Penguin, a social world for kids (designed for 6-14 year olds according to the site), Estroff finds herself in the midst of a huge singles scene. She’s hanging out in a virtual pizza parlor with a swanky penguin named “Cowboy217,” who offers to take her back to his place. There, at his pad, they play Truth or Dare, and the CP version of spin the bottle (Spin the Lava). Then, they kiss. And when Cowboy feels the moment is right, he asks for her flipper in marriage. Why do I get the feeling she is not the only one?

Poor Estroff doesn’t know what to do. For she, too, is already taken (a married mother of four IRL, according to her post). But, her heart wins out and she accepts. End scene.

What’s the messagage here? Well, there are several. One is simple — kids will experiment sexually no matter where you put them. You may be shocked by this scenario (which according to Estroff is very common in CP), but when you consider the “real world” games of “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” as well as the same Truth or Dare and Spin the Bottle games mentioned above, most people shouldn’t be all that surprised. Unless they forgot what they were doing in elementary school and junior high…

Another message is more developmental. This scene, to me, is relatively normative for kids who are going through puberty (OK, except for the marriage part — still not sure about that Penguin custom? Can’t they just go out or be each other’s sweeties?). But the site says it is for kids between 6-14 years old! Since when did we ever think an age grouping that large was a good idea? I am wondering what would happen if a 6-year-old was propositioned by Cowboy. Would the child on the other side of the online penguin even know what was going on? And, if so, would there be any psychological confusion or harm?

I think these are questions we need to consider as people of ALL ages venture into virtual worlds. And to do that, we are going to have to acknowledge that we are sexual beings throughout our lifespan (yes, even small children have some essence of sexuality) — and a computer screen might not only not slow that down, it might actually speed it up.

Internet: Friend or Foe?

A brief editorial Coming of Age on the Internet by the Association for Psychological Science challenges the still-prevalent notion that the internet is more about isolation than connection. It looks back into the internet dark ages (read: mid to late 90s) to recall how initial studies on the phenomenon focused on how spending time online detracted from “real” relationships and sent our youth into cyber isolation.

Has our mindset changed 10-15 years later? Given that in the United States, online communication among young persons is pretty much universal (up to 97% according to Pew), researchers might have been forced into doing so, but are indeed looking more at the positives. According to the editorial, more recent research findings indicate that online networking is associated with greater happiness and well-being; surfing alone does not have such benefits, and may be related to some psychological risks. This finding isn’t any different than face-to-face findings which show that socially connected people are happier.

Is this just evidence that the internet doesn’t create problems, but is simply an example of how current human interactions work?