The Concern of a Middle School Parent

Yesterday, a principal told me something that gave me a physical pain in my chest.

I was visiting his middle school to present my CyberSense program. I always chat with the principal and/or counselors and discuss recent challenges pertaining to their students’ use of technology.

On this occasion, the principal shook his head sadly as he told me that they had discovered naked photos of several 7th Grade girls on a boy’s phone. Upon further investigation, it emerged that many of the other boys also had the photos on their phones.

The girls had willingly shared photos of themselves believing that they were sending them to their boyfriends and that nobody else would see them.

This year, I am feeling especially connected to the content of my middle school presentations. My own daughter is in her first year of middle school. Next year, she will be in 7th Grade and the same age as the girls I had just been told about.

I thought about how I would feel if I had received the phone call from the principal asking me to come to the office. I wondered how my daughter would feel once she had realized the enormous mistake she had made.

According to a survey by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 1 in 5 teenagers have sent and/or posted nude or semi-nude photos and/or videos of themselves.

I have read articles quoting “experts” saying that this is the new normal and that we should just get used to it. They argue that the next generation do not have the same ”hang-ups“ as their parents about displaying their bodies.

I have to wonder if these experts have children of their own. Would they feel differently if they had discovered that there were naked photos of their teenage daughters on porn sites. They simply cannot have any comprehension of the consequences of children posting these images.

Unintended audience
I tell students at my presentations that if you send a photo or message to someone in private, you have to assume that the rest of the world will see it. Kids should ask themselves if they would be happy with the whole school seeing this text message or photo. If the answer is “no” they should take their finger off the SEND button and press the DELETE button instead.

Sometimes kids will use the threat of sharing photos to manipulate the other child to send more revealing photos or for other nefarious purposes. When the photos do inevitably get shared with other students it can lead to bullying and intense shame/embarrassment for the victim.

Permanence
A 2013 Kaplan Test Prep survey of college admissions officers revealed that almost a third used Google or Facebook to research candidates’ social history. 30% discovered something which negatively impacted the student’s chances of being accepted to the college.

Many employers do the same with their job applicants. On more than one occasion, principals have told me that a prospective teacher was not given the job, because of content found on their Facebook page.

Criminal
Sexual images of a minor are considered child pornography. Taking a photo and/or forwarding it can lead to arrest. Teenagers have been charged and sentenced for taking photos even when they intended to keep them private.

You cannot assume your kids will be smart and will never share inappropriate photos. You must talk with your kids – daughters AND sons. Tell them to respect their bodies and reinforce the fact that anything they send from their phone can end up in the public domain. Equally, tell your children not to ask another child to send them photos. We need to do a much better job educating and preventing the potential abusers as well as the potential victims.

Unfortunately, I often get asked to visit a school and talk with the students AFTER there has been a major problem. I wish more schools would invite me to speak as a preventative measure.

But nothing can replace the positive impact of parents talking with their kids. If you are not comfortable talking about these issues with your children, find a trusted adult who will do it.

In my book CyberSense: The 7 Steps to Keeping Your Kids Safe Online, I offer several questions you might like to use as conversation starters. Here are a few of them:
What kinds of photos and messages do you consider inappropriate?
What would you do if a friend or boy/girlfriend asked you to send something inappropriate?
What would you do if s/he sent you something inappropiate?
What are the dangers of sending inappropriate messages and photos to people? What could happen?
Do you know anyone who has done anything like this? What happened?

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