If you have followed some of the recent stories of cyberbullying that led to horrific consequences, you might be feeling as if your kids are living in a world you don’t understand and can’t control. Kids are taking their clothes off for strangers online, sending naked photos and videos of each other to huge groups, and engaging in other frightening online activities that sound unappealing, out of character and straight-up dangerous.
Why would they do this?
“If you think about it, sending video is pretty natural for this generation,” Lisa Shaw, senior editor of ParentingTodaysKids.com and senior director of Online Child Safety and Protection at SpectorSoft told me. My own kids grab video of our pets’ cute antics, of each other at parties, of things they want to remember, of anything they find amusing to share with friends. They grew up with cheap video cameras everywhere and access to video of everything from lessons in fixing a broken computer to how-tos on doing fabulous makeup to hilarious cat videos. When they start exploring more adult topics, video is probably as natural to them as it is cringe-worthy to my generation. And that’s why, says Shaw, an epidemic known as sexcasting is sweeping the tween and teenage groups. Sexcasting is the creation, sending and receiving of sexually suggestive or explicit videos across the Internet.
My daughter has access to video cameras, Internet, a smartphone, and a lively and engaged social network of friends. Does that mean she is in the other room sexcasting?
It certainly doesn't seem like her style. But Shaw points out that a kid can have one personality at home, another at school and still another online. A 2011 AP-MTV Digital Abuse Study found that 15% of teens and young adults surveyed have sent naked photos or videos of themselves and 21% have received naked pictures or videos of others.
Call me deluded, but I still don’t think she is doing this. And here’s why: I explained the dangers of sending photos of any kind, but especially sexy or nude ones, to her before I let her have access to a computer with a webcam or a phone with a camera. And I do frequent "drive-bys" where I insist on seeing what's on the screen right now. And I bring the many dangers up a lot—too much, according to my kids. I explained that there can be legal repercussions because trading naked photos of a minor online is illegal and kids have been prosecuted under pornography laws for sending photos to friends. I also explained that once a photo is on the Internet, you can’t get it back or control where it goes. Because of this, I often ask her to imagine how she would feel if her grandmother saw the photo she is thinking about posting. If she doesn't want Nana to see it, she shouldn't share it with anyone. And every time the devastating repercussions of sexting, bullying or anything else in this realm makes the news, we talk about it.
Also, as soon as I got off the phone with Shaw, I asked my daughter if she knew what sexcasting was and if she had ever done it. “That is disgusting!" she insisted. "I would never do that!” And I believe her. But, since we were already discussing it, I took the opportunity to share a fact Shaw had told me that I felt would create even more disincentive, just in case her peers—or anyone—ever pressured her to do something she would never do on her own. “That’s good,” I said. “Because 88% of the sexy photos that teens post get reposted to parasite porn websites. So even if you think you are only sending a photo or video to a friend, there is a very good chance that some gross pervert—or a lot of them—will see it too.”
This wasn't a conversation I wanted to have with my daughter. I’d much rather keep the conversation to school, new TV shows and how awesome her hair looks. But I don’t send her out into the real world without warning her about the dangers and giving her a guidebook on what to do and not to do to stay safe. And I don’t send her out on the Internet unprepared either.
“Talk to your kids about the dangers,” agrees Shaw. “No matter how uncomfortable the conversation makes you—or them." If it's easier to use the news as a starting point for a conversation like this, there is, unfortunately, plenty of fodder there these days.
If you see worrisome signs, suspect that your teen is engaged in risky behavior, or can’t be there to supervise their online adventures, you could install one of SpectorSoft’s computer or mobile tools (here is a coupon code for 25% off SpectorSoft products: FamilyCircle25) that watch everything they do online. This is a bit like installing security cameras on their online life.
Personally, though, I am a strong believer in taking the computer or phone away if I suspect it’s being used irresponsibly (even if that’s just because it’s being used too much). I provide it. I can take it back. And I do.