Smile: You're On The Internet!

Why the ever-present digital camera might just be the biggest threat to your kids!

by Bill Camarda

We're raising the most visual generation in history. And no wonder: with today's digital cameras and camcorders, we're living in a golden age of photograph and video. Nowadays, your kids can capture their friends anywhere, anytime. They can create a visual record of their lives that we parents can only wish we had. They can share those images across the Web, instantaneously, so grandma can always see what they're up to, even if she's traveling in Timbuktu.

And they can have a total blast doing all that.


But, of course, nothing in this world comes without cost or risk. Once upon a time, kids could go a little wild, and no permanent harm would be done. As parents, we'd reprimand them. We'd get them back in line. But, when all was said and done, we'd exhale... relieved that they were safe, happy that nobody else would see their indiscretions, ready to chalk it up to the inevitable mistakes that go with growing up.

That was then. Suddenly, it seems like everyone's armed with video- or photo-enabled cellphones. Suddenly, simple, handy, point-and-shoot devices like The Flip pocket camcorder are everywhere. Bottom line: nowadays, wherever your child goes, whatever your child does, his or her escapades could well be captured on still or video image. And then uploaded onto the Internet, forever liberated from constraints or restrictions.

Who'll see those images? Colleges? Future employers? The parents of your child's serious boyfriend or girlfriend? If you're going to protect your kids, you need to be aware of the "dark side" of digital imaging. So here goes...

From pranks to violence

We'll start (relatively) gently, with the just-plain-dumb: classic teenage pranks, updated for the Internet age. YouTube's full of 'em. Look up fence plowing. As described recently by The New York Times: "teenagers roam the sleepy suburban streets until they find a lawn fence that is good and sturdy and in a well-lighted area. Then they take a good running start and hurl themselves square into it, sending fence slats flying..." And, of course, post the results, a.k.a., evidence, on YouTube or MySpace. (Making it even easier for the police, one kid inadvertently left his cellphone, replete with video, near the fence he'd demolished. Swift, real swift.)

Tragically, fences aren't the only thing being hurt on the Internet, and heads aren't the only thing that's being battered. A few low-profile sites most parents have never heard of specialize in showing teenagers beating the living daylights out of each other. CNN reported in April that eight teenage girls in Polk County, Florida kidnapped and attacked a 16-year-old with the intention of further humiliating her by posting the attack on YouTube; they are awaiting trial as adults on charges that could lead to life sentences.

Why do they do it?

As these examples demonstrate, some young people have no reluctance about posting videos likely to land themselves in trouble with their schools, parents, or local police. There's the 16-year old from Jefferson, Colo., arrested after posting pictures of himself on MySpace holding handguns he wasn't legally permitted to possess. There are the photos of Quinnipiac University students apparently taking illegal drugs; there are the videos of rowdy, drunken high school kids on commuter trains heading back from the big city.

In The New York Times, top pediatrician Dr. Andrew Adesman took a shot at explaining the motivations for behavior like this: "Teens have been doing inappropriate things for a long time, but now they think they can become celebrities by doing it. In the past, you'd brag to your friends in the locker room about doing something stupid or crazy or daring. Now the Internet provides additional motivation."

Puberty + digital cameras = big trouble

Most kids don't fight, or even vandalize property. But they're all going through puberty. Trying to come to terms with sexuality has never been easy, but in the age of the digital camera, it's tougher than ever. Digital cameras and cellphones have "liberated" kids to flaunt or exploit their sexuality (or others') in terrifying new ways.

There are the many middle-school and high-school relationships where partners share images of themselves nude or in sexually compromising positions. Sometimes, these pictures are offered up voluntarily; other times, one partner nags or intimidates the other into taking and sharing them. Either way, when the relationships end, the jilted partner can "get even" by posting or forwarding these images. Suddenly, they're available to the entire world. For an adolescent, of course, this can be a deeply shaming experience.

That happened in Hudson, Wisconsin, where the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported that "using her cell phone, a high school girl sends nude photos of herself to boyfriends that wind up printed and distributed in the boys' locker room... two boys accused of doing it are charged with defaming her character. The girl tells police she is devastated."

Lest you think only the girls are victims, consider this recent story from the Columbus Dispatch: "The 17-year-old was taking a nap when his cell phone buzzed. A video message had just arrived. A girl's naked body flashed on the screen. The surprised boy snapped shut his phone. Seconds later, it buzzed again. "Am I better than your girlfriend?" a familiar voice asked... Experts and high-school students both say that teens - particularly girls - are increasingly using naked pictures, raunchy messages and promises of no-strings-attached sex to get attention or nab a boy."

Forwarding a sexually provocative image of someone underage is generally a criminal act: it may even be subject to the federal child pornography statutes. Prosecutors don't always indict children, but the threat is quite real.

What to do about it

Some kids seem to be born with good judgment. But not every parent is so lucky. (It turns out there are biological reasons for this. Recent MRI research proves that the human brain continues to develop through the teenage years and even beyond, and during those years, the greatest changes are in the areas of the brain responsible for self-control and judgment.)

You can get a little bit of support in monitoring your child's relationship with Internet photos and video. For instance, some schools now assign guidance counselors or others to spot-check the Web for signs of abuse. Many prominent web sites, such as MySpace and Facebook, have rules about what is and isn't acceptable. Bottom line, you're going to have to help your kids.

That means speaking openly about stories like these, helping them understand the difference between love and exploitation, and helping them set boundaries in their relationships. It means encouraging your child's school to play a more active role in educating children about the risks and repercussions that go with sharing photos or videos. It means helping your child "scrub" MySpace pages and "delink" Facebook photos to reduce the risk that people will see images that show them in an unflattering light. It also means recognizing if your child's being taken advantage of, and getting official or professional help if it's needed.

As always, it comes back to us: we need to parent. If we do, we can increase the odds that today's amazing digital imaging technologies will leave our kids with only the happiest of memories.

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