All You Ever Wanted To Know About “Sexting”

Sexting, online bullying, Facebook fraud and more. Social media may be our kids’ cultural norm, but parents have good cause for concern and every reason to become better informed.

 

For that reason the Family Awareness Network and the Wilmette Junior High School sponsored student and parent discussions on Wednesday, Oct. 7, with nationally renown social media expert, danah boyd, a  researcher at Microsoft Research New England, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and an internationally recognized authority on the ways adolescents use networked social media.

boyd spoke candidly to the 850 WJHS students in the afternoon and to nearly 400 parents that night. Her recommendations follow:

For students

  • Do realize that information lives forever on the Internet
  • Don’t lie about your age online
  • Don’t talk about sex online
  • Don’t use the online media (or anything else!) as a means to bully
  • Do delete any naked and/or compromising photos that may have been sent to you via e mail or texting, and Do tell an adult immediately—this isn’t tattling, this is protecting yourself from child pornography charges.

danahboydtalk2Since students are often better versed on social media and the Internet than their parents, boyd’s presentation during the day focused on the serious ramifications of actions in a very public online space that tweens may not fully understand.

While being social with friends is the object, she reminds students that this is a public space, and the information we put there lives a long, long (can we say, long) time. So, as a rule of thumb, she advises that they not put anything online that they wouldn’t want, say, a college admissions counselor or their grandmother to see.

And really, would tweens want their grandmother to see naked pictures of them? Probably not. Which leads to the next point boyd tried to drill home: Minors who text naked photos of themselves to others or receive such photos—even if they didn’t solicit them—can get in real trouble. This is what’s called “sexting,” and, if it involves a minor, it’s illegal. In fact, it’s called “child pornography.”

That means these tweens could be sentenced to 30 years in jail, be listed as a registered sex offender for up to 30 years and have a felony on their record for life.

But taking away the kids cell phones isn’t the answer, boyd says. Like bullying, it’s the behavior that’s the problem, not the technology. She says. “We have to de-normalize that behavior.”

For Parents

  • Do get a Facebook page to understand the social space in which your child is participating.
  • Don’t friend your child unless they friend you first.
  • Do open the lines of communication between you and your child.
  • Do make sure there is a “trusted adult” in your child’s life, someone they will friend on Facebook. If it isn’t you, make sure it’s a teacher, aunt or friend of the family.
  • Don’t deny them access to the Internet – they need this skill for high school and college, and they can’t even apply for a job at McDonalds without it.
  • Do make sure you get a list of their user IDs and passwords for all e-mail and social sites.

After talking with the students during the day, boyd tackeled the parents in the evening. Many of the talking points were the same as she touched on safety and sexting. But for the parental presentation, boyd’s message was: Social media may be new, but social interaction embedded in that technology is not.

When we were young, our social space was the baseball field, the street in front of our house, a back yard or the playground. We’d have meaningless chatter like: What’s up … Not much. We’d talk about homework or what we did last night. In effect, we’d give people our status updates.

Fast forward to 2009, and this is the same interaction is happening in kids’ lives. It’s just happening online. The reason? boyd says we so over-program our kids that the only way they can get together is virtually. Between hockey practice, tutoring sessions, piano lessons, fencing and theatre practice, they simply don’t have time for in-person socialization.

Throughout the presentation, boyd stressed the importance of allowing tweens to participate in social media. She said that if you don’t allow this interaction, you’re ultimately doing your child a disservice. If all of your child’s peers are in this space, and your child is not, you are socially isolating your child, which causes him or her a whole new host of problems.

Besides, she said, if you’re not giving them access at home, they’ll find it someplace else.

boyd encouraged students and parents to e-mail her with questions. She
extends that offer to Make It Better users, too. She can be reached at: [email protected]

And in case you’re wondering, her name is legally spelled in all lower case.

For more information on boyd and her work, please visit: danah.org.

—Contributing to this report were Jill Ciminillo and Liz Logan.