The desire to be desired

So much going on in the news these days about young women facing dire consequences for their online presence. First, there has been a bit of media coverage of this research on pictures of teens being re-posted on websites without their permission. According to the article “The Internet Watch Foundation found that 88% of teens’ videos and photos are stolen, sometimes by a cottage industry of ‘parasite websites’ that exist for the sole purpose of harvesting candid teenage photos.”

While the startling percentage should be worth noting, 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) 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.

And that statement about sexting “becoming the norm?” Well, the actual study states that 1/4 of teens have reported doing it. Which, if math serves me correctly, is not “norm.” And although over half did say that they have been asked to sext, that doesn’t seem surprising to me. Asking someone to “show me yours” has been tried since we all knew there was something “down there” we wanted to see.

Yet, there are consequences to having one’s picture posted on a random site — especially for girls, it seems. This article by Emily Heist Moss in Jezebel does a brilliant job of capturing that horrible tension between wanted and unwanted attention based on one’s looks. And sites like “12 Year Old Sluts” on Facebook, YouTube videos that ask “Am I Pretty?” as well as Amanda Todd’s story remind us that we still live in times where girls are told pretty early and consistently that they are to be beautiful and sexy so that others will admire them. But not too sexy (or beautiful) mind you, because then you are a slut, bitch, and will be told as much. Moss states that “shooting for appreciation without denigration” is the ultimate goal for many (young) women, a goal that requires careful negotiation while essentially balancing on a tightrope coated in Vaseline while everyone watches. Stay up there and you will earn the respect and awe of many. Slip and your fall will be recorded, posted, and ridiculed.

The story behind the story

By now, many of you have heard about the tragedy regarding Amanda Todd, the teen who took her life after severe cyberbulling. Her video, posted on this article about her, gives her own account of what happened, just days before she took her own life. I encourage you to watch it and “listen” to her story unfold.

What I believe may happen is a flurry of stories much like the one I posted above: the stories that talk about all the evils of the internet and how it is a dangerous place. What happened to Todd is horrible, but I want to highlight the two things that I hope are stressed and the ones I hope that are NOT brought to the front:

1. Media people — please see that this young woman was groomed by online chatters. It took her a year before she took off her top. What was shaping her life during that time? Who was (and wasn’t) in her life? Don’t just focus on the fact that she fell prey to an online stranger. Take a deeper look into how her situation was the result of a slow progression.

2. All of us — especially youth — why did you follow her from place to place? It was bad enough to bully her, but she moved several times to get away from it all. What, inside of you, possessed you to keep harassing and stalking her after she had left? This lack of humanity frightens me.

Things I don’t want focused on:

a. People figured out who she was. Yes, somehow, she was identified. But please don’t make this a scare-tactic story about stranger danger.

b. What she did was illegal. While it’s true that she could have been guilty of creating child pornography, I hope that the focus is on all the harm the other people did.

What’s going to happen now? Unclear. But I hope her story can be used to create dialogue about what can happen when harassment goes too far. There needs to be more forgiveness and understanding taught here. The basic lessons of being a good person.

Youth aren’t the only ones who make mistakes…

Haven’t been inspired to write, but a shout-out to teacher’s aide Tiffany Lynne Huffman who was arrested for sending naked pictures of herself to THREE teenagers.

The article states that she knew her actions were wrong, but she “liked the attention.”

Let this be a message to all of us that it’s not just youth who crave sexual attention and can therefore make dubious decisions as a result.

How much sexting? It all depends on who you ask

A recent study published in the esteemed journal Pediatrics reports that 9.6% of young people have sent a nude or semi-nude picture of themselves. This percentage is half of the often-reported statistic of 20% that was generated by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. So, what gives? Which number is closer to the truth? CORRECTION: In the Pediatrics study, the number of young people who report having actually sent a picture is only 2.5% — the other 7.1% received an image! Thanks to Larry Magid for pointing out the correction! Additional corrections will appear in bold.

Sampling gives some clue. The Pediatrics figure was generated from a sample of over 1500 10-17 year-old internet users, using random-digit dialing. They tried to get a good proportion of cellphone users only, but instead ended up relying disproportionately on land-line users. The Campaign figure was generated from a sample of 650+ 13-19 year-olds that come from a base of survey takers through an online marketing group. Results from the Campaign were weighted according to US Census numbers. The Pediatrics study did not weight data, though it attempted to create a representative sample. A quick look at the data shows that Hispanic and African-American youth are slightly over-represented. The two studies essentially asked the same question, so I don’t think the methodology is to blame for the difference.

So, an easy spot to see differences is in age. The Pediatrics study surveyed younger participants, so it makes sense that their percentage of sexters is going to be lower. And indeed, looking at the older ages in Pediatrics reveals that 2 of the 10-12 year-olds said they had sent or received a sext (constituting less than 1% of this subgroup), 11% of 13-14 year-olds have, and the number of 15, 16, and 17 year-olds who report sending or receiving sexts — 17%, 28%, and 21%, respectively (Note: The Campaign does not provide a specific breakdown of behavior by age). Now the data are starting to look similar, no?

There are other possibilities for the differences — a closer look at the racial composition of the surveys, for example, but that may lend itself to predicting slightly higher numbers for the Pediatrics study, as it appears Hispanic youth are more likely to sext than the other racial/ethinc groups (I would love to know more about this, but it doesn’t look as though there is enough detail to better understand this finding). The use of a group of teens willing to partake in online surveys may also skew the numbers of The Campaign findings higher — it’s easier to hide responses from parents, get permission to respond to the survey, etc.

But I think the first thing to do is focus on this age issue. Combining the results from these two surveys gives us an important message that we can act on. Going by the numbers from BOTH surveys, it looks like age 13 is when we should start to be concerned about sexting, and serious alarm bells should go off by the time the young person reaches 16. So, from a prevention mindset, we should start talking about sexting two years before it occurs. Health educators and prevention experts state that discussions about behaviors should begin at least two years before the behavior begins in order to get a healthy message across effectively and on time. Therefore, true prevention folks would target 11-year-olds in their anti-sexting messages. More tentative people better start the conversation by age 13 or 14, but even then that approach misses a lot of youth.

Curriculum designers take note! Sexting conversations should start around the 5th grade, and most certainly by 6th (the start of middle school). Parents be mindful! Sexting conversations can be woven into conversations about other sexual matters, or even be the springboard for conversations about healthy and unhealthy relationships. I hope more studies are done, but I love the fact that these two seemingly similar findings (despite media coverage stating the opposite), give us a solid direction and course of action towards better understanding this phenomenon that simply did not exist when I was younger.

"Possession is Nine-Tenths of the Law"

An interesting case here in Oregon sheds light on the concept as to how the internet is completely disrupting the ways in which pornography is defined by law. Earlier this month, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that it is not illegal to look at child pornography online, as long as those images are not downloaded, printed, or paid for. In other words, if you do not actually take some sort of action to “own” the images, you are not in possession of the material, and therefore cannot be punished for simply looking at it. Quoting the article in the Oregonian:

“Looking for something on the Internet is like walking into a museum to look at pictures — the pictures are where the person expected them to be, and he can look at them, but that does not in any sense give him possession of them.” — Justice Michael Gillette.

Clearly, this protects people who stumble across images they did not intend to view (though for child pornography, how likely is this, really?). However, child pornography laws were first created in the 1970s for the distinct purpose of protecting the actual children (defined as anyone under 18 in 1984 through that year’s Child Protection Act) involved in making the materials. It wasn’t until 1990, in the case Osborne v. Ohio, that the high courts ruled a state could punish someone for “possessing” the images. The justification of this law was that making it illegal to possess images would decrease the market for them, and thus protect children.

However, as the internet became more established, it was clear that the laws related to child pornography were by no means designed to deal with images distributed electronically. Additionally, there have been several legal battles to define what child pornography actually is. Since earlier laws were written to protect children, what if a person created an image that only looked like a child engaging in sexual acts (using computerized image construction), but in reality no child was actually used in creating the image? With all the programs out there, this is a pretty easy thing to accomplish.

Currently, the courts go back and forth as to whether creating images of child pornography without actually using children is legal. To my knowledge, the legality of childless child pornography is “winning” in most cases, thanks to a Supreme Court ruling in 2002.

Other problems arise in the enforcement of child pornography laws. With the international accessibility of the internet, the United States needs to acknowledge that not all countries have child pornography laws, and even those that do have varying ages of consent and definitions of a “minor.” In fact, according to this study, most countries have NO child pornography laws. How can the US uphold its rules about making and possessing child pornography now if it (A) can be made legally in many other countries — or virtually through computer-generated images, and (B) be accessed online without penalty, as long as the images are not saved or purchased? It’s a surprising dilemma.

What hurts the case for restricting child pornography is that there is essentially no research on the effects of its viewers. Such taboo topics need to be examined — no matter how difficult it is to do so — if laws restricting access to and viewing of images are to be upheld. Because right now, child pornographers are finding legitimate legal loopholes which allow them to view images. Just so long as they don’t store them anywhere.

Viruses that plant child pornography on your computer?

A recent case in which a man was accused of possessing child pornography was dropped, as it was discovered during the investigation that his computer had a virus that downloaded the illegal images onto his computer.

Stories like this beg the question — could this happen to you?

Answer from Larry Magid, internet software and safety extraordinaire: “It is indeed possible for malicious software to plant child pornography–or any other type of file, for that matter–on an innocent person’s computer, but being possible doesn’t mean it’s likely. And forensics experts can detect intention.”

Translation: Possible? Yes — Likely? No way.

Still, there are things you can do to protect yourself (though experts stress not to lose sleep over this):
1. Clean out your cache and cookies early and often
2. Clean out your Temp file in your C Drive too
3. Pay attention to the sites you visit and try to go to only trusted sources
4. Note times when your computer is acting sluggish and try to determine if something is being downloaded during those times (use Ctrl-Alt-Delete to look at programs that are currently running and do some searches on them if you do not recognize what they are)

But again, although charges of child pornography are indeed serious, this is not something that should cause panic given its high unlikelihood.

Interesting Debate on Sexting

On a listserv comprised of the top sex educators and counselors in the US, if not the world, there is an intense debate going on as to the potential harm of sexting, More specifically, the discussion revolves around a case in which a teenager (read: a legal minor) is engaging in some form of sexting (not clear from the original post) with an out-of-state adult (again, age unknown, but not a minor). The simple question posed to the listerv: What should this counselor do?

Clearly, there is no easy answer. And thus the debate. Some say it’s a form of sexual abuse. Some say it may be harmless. Some insist on contacting Child Protective Services due to the poster’s status as a mandatory reporter, while others say no as there is no clear and immediate danger. One person suggests the minor contact a rape crisis center.

Others are asking whether there are any laws to draw from. Other than ones about distributing child pornography (which potentially would only get the minor, not the adult in trouble), we come up empty.

And, as I said at the beginning of this post, this debate is going on amongst the cream of the crop experts on issues related to sexuality. If they don’t know the answer, who will? How are we going to figure out the best way to react to this situation? Because it probably happens a lot. But is a sexting relationship between a teenager and adult as potentially harmful as a face-to-face one between the same parties? An intereting question to ponder, if only it were hypothetical.