Everyone's heard about the dangers of sexting -- sending nude pictures and videos over the Internet -- but no one thinks that their kid would be dumb enough to do it. Well, they are, and they do, and it can change their lives forever.
Internet Safety Specialist Lori Getz: Do you remember a time in your life when you would have done anything to get the attention of a boy? Spending hours on your hair and makeup, making sure to stand, dress, giggle, and talk exactly the way you thought he would have wanted you to? Do you remember a time when everything you did and said felt awkward, but if the boy you liked thought it was "rad," then you did, too?
Now imagine you are growing up in 2009 ... where all of these insecurities are caught on camera and your most private moments are uploaded for the world to see. This is what our children face today.
"I thought it was the end of the world," says 15-year-old Emily [all names have been changed to protect teens' identities], as she told me the story of how a naked video of her ended up all over the Internet.
Emily met David at summer camp when she was 13. She was shy and a little insecure about her looks, so she was thrilled when this 16-year-old boy noticed her. They were friendly all summer, but their relationship grew after camp ended. David contacted Emily through MySpace, and she added him on her page. David became more forthright about his feelings for Emily online, calling her "babe" in comments and private messages, and talking about how "hot" she was.
"To me, the word 'babe' is a couples' word," said Emily. She believed his intent was to develop a real relationship. After many online exchanges (but nothing face-to-face, as Emily knew her parents would not approve of her dating an older boy), things got more intense.
"He wanted me to send him a naked video of myself ... I was embarrassed ... I didn't want to do it, so I sent him a picture of my butt.... I thought giving him less than what he really wanted was OK."
After she sent the picture, David began pressuring Emily for more. He said the pictures of her butt made him so horny and he needed to see the rest of her. He talked about how beautiful she was and made her feel very special. Reluctantly, Emily took her family's camcorder, and videotaped herself dancing topless. She then uploaded the video and sent it off to David.
David insisted that he was not receiving the video and talked Emily into resending it through several different applications. Emily used 4 different sites to get the video to David before she finally gave up, thinking it never went through. David seemed angry at the time and stopped messaging Emily for a while.
Months went by and occasionally David would message her through MySpace asking her to hang out. Emily would ignore the messages or just simply decline. Then one day, Emily got a phone call from her best friend.
"You made a porno and you didn't tell me!" said the best friend. Emily had no idea what her friend was talking about. The girl explained that she had opened her Facebook page earlier that day to find a link in her Honesty Box with a message attached: "You think you know your best friend? Your best friend's a slut!"
The link took her to an amateur pornography website where her best friend was dancing topless in front of the camera. Emily was mortified. This was the video she had sent to David.
"My whole high school knew about it," said Emily. "I was stared at, whispered about ... people never would have guessed that I would have done that. But what was really killing me was thinking about what would happen if my parents found out."
Emily jumped every time the phone rang at her house. She was having little panic attacks thinking about the day her parents would discover their perfect daughter was a disappointment. "It was interfering with my life ... I couldn't trust anyone. I had a huge wall up," Emily admitted.
After months of closing herself off from both her family and friends, Emily finally realized she had to tell someone. She first contacted me after her best friend heard me speak at her high school. Emily needed to tell someone, and I was far enough removed from the situation that she thought it would be safe. I finally convinced Emily to talk to her school counselor, who then spoke with her parents (with Emily's permission).
"My mom hugged me," Emily repeated three times as she told me the story. "I expected my parents to be very disappointed, not talk to me, to cry -- maybe they did, but not in front of me. If anything, they were upset that I had tried to protect them instead of them protecting me."
Emily's story is not uncommon. Teens today do not understand the ramifications of Sexting, or Sexcasting. Sexting is sending nude photos via text messages, and Sexcasting is the act of sending nude photos or video via webcasting. No matter what you call it, when children participate in this act, it's child pornography. Some children who have participated in sexting have been prosecuted for the production and distribution of child pornography and are now registered sex offenders.
Other consequences of sexting can range from a few stares and malicious gossip to suicide. At the end of the interview, Emily said to me, "I'm lucky this happened to me in L.A. Everyone is so caught up in their own stuff, no one really gave me that hard of a time about it. Did you hear about the girl at Syracuse?" Emily was referring to Jessica Logan, originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, who was attending college at Syracuse. While in high school, Jessica had sent nude photos of herself to her boyfriend that were then circulated around her high school. After returning home from college for a friends' funeral, the pressure became too much and Jessica hung herself in her parents' home.
When I asked Emily why she sent the video in the first place, she stopped and thought for a moment. "I don't know really," she said. "He kept telling me how hot I was. Sometimes he talked about what we would do if we were actually together. I wasn't ready for that. I thought this would satisfy him."
Today, after talking to a counselor and her friends about what happened to her, Emily feels a sense of obligation to let other girls know how important it is to think before you send. "I had to stop blaming myself in order to face what I did," she says. "I made a mistake and the worst part was trying to keep a secret that everyone already knew about. I was manipulated. He could have fooled anyone."
I asked Emily what she thought could be done to help other young people from falling into the same trap.
"It's an issue that needs to be talked about as soon as middle school," she says. "And our parents don't understand. They are so overwhelmed with the technology, so they just don't talk about it. We're given condoms in health class and told how to use them, but no one talks about this. Do we have to make the mistake in order to learn about it?"
Emily and her parents contacted the local police department and they worked diligently to remove as much of the video as they could find. The case against David as the distributor of child pornography is still open. Emily has found comfort in the fact that she no longer needs to keep this from her parents. She is now focusing on her poetry, painting, drawing, and running track.
|Lori Getz is the founder of Cyber Education Consultants and speaks to students, parents and educators about Internet safety, security and ethics. She has a Master of Arts in Educational Technology from San Diego State University and is certified by isafe.org as an Internet Safety Specialist. Her mission is to help bridge the gap between a young generation of digital natives and their parents and teachers. She is the mother of one and lives in Los Angeles with her husband.|