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
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
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.