Sexting & A Safety Agreement for Families

February 15, 2016

After running a recent workshop on privacy legislation and educators, I was approached by an attendee. The person was currently going through a divorce, was just starting her teaching career and concerned about some racy photos she made and shared with her husband. They were now divorcing. She was wondering if she should be concerned about those photos. My response started with, “It would have been simpler if you hadn’t shared those photos…” (My advice continued, but that’s for another post.)

 

Sexting is risky business, there’s no denying it. We need to discuss the risks with our children as soon as they are ready, and have a plan in place to help and support them if they get in trouble. This post is provided as a tool to help families understand the issues and perhaps enter into an agreement (document template provided at end) with their children to lend support should it ever be necessary.

Sexting & The Issues

Sexting is the practice (even if it’s just one time) of sharing intimate, explicit images, videos or messages with one or more others. The practice of sexting between romantic partners or as a means to flirt and attract romantic partners has been on the rise—especially among older teens.

Often people share sexts under the assumption that the person(s) receiving the sexts will keep them private. When relationships breakdown, one of the parties may break that assumption of trust and share that ‘private’ sext with others. In fact, the top 3 justifications 18-54 year olds gave for non-consensual sharing of personal data were:

  • a partner lied (45%)
  • a partner cheated (41%)
  • a partner broke up with them (27%).1

The same data showed that 10% of ex-partners threatened to release intimate photos of their partner online and of those, 60% followed through and shared them. 1

But it’s not always relationship breakdowns that cause sexts to be made more public: loss of personal devices holding sensitive information like sexts (e.g. cellphones, tablets, computers) can leave parties vulnerable—especially when said devices have little to no password protection. (TIP: Use strong passwords- See http://www.howtogeek.com/195430/how-to-create-a-strong-password-and-remember-it/ ). Some people share their passwords—to their phones, or online accounts—and later find out someone breached that trust and shared content (like sexts) they wanted kept private. (TIP: Don’t share passwords guarding personal information—your devices or accounts. My one exception: my kids share their passwords with me.) Then there’s always the risk of a hacker revealing content—especially if any of the parties involved store their sexts online or in the cloud (E.g. In 2014, a hacker breached Apple’s iCloud and publicly posted private nude photos of female celebrities).

The risk of sexts:

  • They are permanent digital records of intimate/explicit things;
  • They are easily copied & distributed;
  • They could be shared without your consent;
  • They could be shared with unforeseen people: friends, family, future/ current employers, the world;
  • They could be shared in ways you never intended (like posted publicly online).

While sexting may be done consensually, age differences between the participants may make the practice a legal concern–this varies by country & legal jurisdiction (e.g. child pornography). Another concern is that social and peer pressure can be used to extort sexts from otherwise uncomfortable or unwilling participants. Englander (2012) writes that among 18 year olds, “Indisputably, the most important motivation for sexting…was pressure and coercion”. 2 The two main reasons for sexting were:

  • “because a date or boyfriend/girlfriend wanted the picture (66%)”
  • to attract someone you’re interested in (65%). 2

Youth are still discovering what constitutes a respectful romantic relationship. Sometimes the partners requesting the sext through pressuring and coercion may be unaware that they are crossing a line toward sexual harassment. In the case of youth and young adults who choose to sext, they may not be fully aware of the permanence of the content in the sext, how readily it can be distributed, and the potential impacts if shared.

Youth and young adults aren’t necessarily thinking about their future careers when they sext. Sexts made public can affect your employment—future or continuing—in trust professions like teaching. In British Columbia, you need look no farther than the Shewan Decision (1987)3 to understand the ramifications of how sexts in the wrong hands, or made public could affect your job. Other examples of trust professions where sexts-made-more-public could be an issue: counseling, law, law enforcement, medicine, politics, etc. Members of these professions are held to higher standards than the general public—particularly teachers who are seen to influence the development of children and youth.

Youth Reluctance Reporting Problems

Unfortunately, youth are reluctant to report problems that arise from sexting—especially to parents/caregivers. They are concerned that:

  • Someone will “judge” them for sexting.
  • Someone (parents/caregivers) will take away their devices or technology.

A Sexting Safety Agreement (V 1.0)

To support families in navigating risks associated with sexting and to encourage youth to report problems to caregivers, I’ve drafted a Sexting Safety Agreement (V 1.0)  along the lines of the M.A.D.D.’s Contract for Life (an agreement between caregivers and youth to manage the risks of impaired driving). This is one of the first documents I’ve released under Creative Commons licensing: BY-NC-SA (Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share Alike).

 

Footnotes

  1. McAfee, 2013, Lovers beware: Scorned exes may share intimate data and images, http://www.mcafee.com/us/about/news/2013/q1/20130204-01.aspx.
  2. Englander, E.K. (2012) Low risk associated with most Teenage Sexting: A Study of 617 18-Year-Olds, Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Centre, Bridgewater State College, Bridgewater, MA. Available at: http://webhosbridgew.edu/marc/SEXTING%20AND%20COERCION%20report.pdf
  3. In the late 1980’s, a nude photo of a teacher in the Abbotsford School district was submitted by her husband (also a teacher) and published in a magazine as part of an erotic photography competition. The teachers were disciplined by the Board and it lead to a series of court cases. Ultimately in the BC Court of Appeals, Shewan v. Board of School Trustees of School District #34 (Abbotsford), 1987 159, the court stated: “The behaviour of the teacher must satisfy the expectations which the British Columbia community holds for the educational system. Teachers must maintain the confidence and respect of their superiors, their peers, and in particular, the students, and those who send their children to our public schools. Teachers must not only be competent, but they are expected to lead by example. Any loss of confidence or respect will impair the system, and have an adverse effect upon those who participate in or rely upon it. That is why a teacher must maintain a standard of behaviour which most other citizens need not observe because they do not have such public responsibilities to fulfil.”(page 6; http://caselaw.canada.globe24h.com/0/0/british-columbia/court-of-appeal/1987/12/21/shewan-v-board-of-school-trustees-of-school-district-34-abbotsford-1987-159-bc-ca.shtml)
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Raising Techno-Responsible Kids: Story 2

February 27, 2014

Bike with training wheels; social media logos on rear tire

While I was commuting into work Tuesday, I was listening to The Kid Carson Show (http://www.kidcarson.com/) on Sonic (Chilliwack, BC, Canada). The segment dealt with his 9 year old step-daughter’s request for Instagram—and his response. Much of the discussion and the commentary from listeners dealt with what I’ll call a binary approach—like a 0 or a 1—where our children are seen as either having no access whatsoever (0) or full unrestricted access (1). If you’re in the “no access” camp,  you should know the question is not whether your kids will get access to social media—regardless of type—but when, how, and how prepared they will be to use it.  Ask yourself, “If I’m not preparing my kids to use social media, who is? Whose values will they take into these environments? Who will help them learn how to make good decisions with these tools?”

Many of us overlook a middle ground where our kids can have managed access. Managed access could look like: 1) we post content on their behalf & share responses through our own adult account ; 2) we have an account that is shared between ourselves & our children; or 3) our kids have their own account and share their passwords and content with us. If you think about it, it’s a lot like how many of us learned to drive a car or ride a bike. We started out observing how a skilled adult did it—from back seats or kid seats. We might have tried it on a kiddie version under parental supervision—a Little Tykes car or a tricycle on the driveway. All the time our parents were correcting us where we needed it, supporting and directing. Then we got to a semi-independent stage where parents “rode along” in the front seat or ran alongside. They were chattering away to us even then about what was safe—or not. Eventually, when we had some skill, and they had some confidence in our abilities—we got the keys to the car or we got to take the bike down the road alone. Social media use is a lot like that.

Think of it as 3 phases based on maturity rather than years, and those phases are based on a parent’s knowledge, observation, and confidence in a child’s abilities and core values when using technology. In my work with my own children—9 & 10 years old now—I see these phases as:

  • Digital by Proxy
  • Digitally Coached
  • Digitally Independent

Out of the blue, would you just hand over the keys to your car one day and think your child had the skills to drive? In my opinion, kids don’t magically reach an age where they get the keys to the digital kingdom—they earn them. An approach I use is one where children get graduated, monitored access depending on the tool, their behaviour and maturity. The phases will vary tool by digital tool—and child by child.

Digital by Proxy

In the Digital by Proxy phase, I as a parent will post things on my children’s behalf through my accounts. I will filter content I post—say no pictures of their faces—and discuss why some things are safe to share and others not. I will act as a digital bridge between them and the online world talking through our values and having discussions. I use Twitter a lot and have done this with things my sons wanted to post on Twitter.  A few months back my oldest son (10) asked for his own Twitter account. We talked about why he wanted the account and whether he was ready for it—did he have people he wanted to follow? Did he have content he wanted to share? etc. Since the only person he wanted to follow was me (likely because I was posting content for him), I explained that most of my stuff was “ed tech” and would likely be pretty boring for him. He didn’t have content he wanted to share regularly, so we decided that if he did want to share things, we would use my account as we have in the past. We also agreed that I would share any responses to content I had posted on his behalf.

Digital by Proxy is not just about being a digital “stand in”; it’s also about discussing what it is to be a digitally responsible person. You need to discuss with your children moral and ethical questions about being digital as you encounter them.  For example, Tuesday was a snow day for all of us in the family—all schools closed—including mine. The Simi Sara Show (http://www.cknw.com/the-simi-sara-show/ ) on CKNW was discussing the story of a woman in Calgary who was being digitally shamed. (BTW a good free reading in this area is Chapter 4 in Daniel Solove’s The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet called Shaming and the Digital Scarlet Letter). My kids and husband were drifting in and out of the kitchen as I sat listening and tweeting. I shared snippets with them. It led to a good discussion over lunch on the ethics of digitally shaming people—even if they did do something wrong. My not-so-techie husband also weighed in on the discussion. It got to a point where we began to see the issue as a question of whether ends justify means and we talked about digital shaming as a type of #cyberbullying . As I said to my husband, “If we don’t like what someone’s doing, shouldn’t we talk to the person directly? If that doesn’t work—or we’re afraid to approach that person, we teach our kids to report behaviour to the designated responsible adults. Rather than digitally shaming people, shouldn’t adults do the same—especially if it’s what we want kids to do? If that has been tried and doesn’t work, that’s a different story.”

I’m big on digital proxy where the risks to children might be higher—e.g. exposure to baddies, etc.—or my kids’ maturity & skills are low (which makes me see the risks as “higher” than for a more mature or skilled child) and when they are unclear about uses for the tool. From the outset, it should always be about your kids being safe and responsible online—so they can get the most benefit with the least risk.

Digitally Coached

My response to my sons’ request for text messaging when they were 8 & 9, was different. Both had face-to-face friends they saw infrequently—friends from summer vacations and distant family—and nearby friends with whom they wanted to interact regularly. Text messaging is a great way to stay in touch with these people and in my opinion, their texting circle could be easily managed. Our agreement was that each boy could have separate texting accounts, but that I would set them both up, maintain the passwords, and have the ability to review their use. In the beginning—especially with my youngest, they would text some stuff I would call “junk”—gobbled-gook or inappropriate statements (in line with bathroom humour)—some of which was directed to me as their initial contact for texting.  I discussed with them that a texting account was a privilege & that they needed to show me they could be responsible with it. I check in on their texts from time to time. When they go a bit sidewise with their behaviour, we talk about it and I usually use the phrase, “That kind of behaviour shows me that you’re not ready for your own account [separate from me].” They know they shouldn’t use the accounts to say things that they wouldn’t say to people face-to-face (a house ground rule for technology use).  Some other ground rules for our texting use are that my kids may only text with people approved by me and who they know face-to-face (that includes my husband or I knowing the others face-to-face).  I have written about our ground rules before (https://jhengstler.wordpress.com/2013/04/10/trying-to-raise-techno-responsible-kids-story-1/ ).

Similarly, though both my kids have asked for their own iTunes accounts—and some of their friends already have them—I have said no. I have certain expectations about the choices my kids will make for their apps. I’ve discussed this before in my blog. Games that virtually humiliate victims, etc. just don’t make the cut. My kids ask for apps and have to be ready to discuss what the app is and does—and I’ll take a closer look if I think it’s necessary. In the beginning I got lots of requests for inappropriate apps and games—often because friends had them. When the boys describe an app or game that’s sounding questionable, I usually respond with something like, “That doesn’t sound too nice. Would we do that in real life?” Don’t get me wrong, as I’ve mentioned before, killing dinos to save the village—or zombies to save living brains—usually makes the cut, but virtually bullying a person in a virtual office by throwing things at them, or virtually kicking a virtual friend absolutely does not. If I reject an app or game, I discuss with them why it doesn’t make the cut. Popularity of an app or game alone is not a reason to have it, by our family standards. I know there are “parental controls” for kids’ accounts—but I think I’m a bit more thorough. In the beginning, my boys would ask for their own iTunes account, but as I said to them, “You need to show me you can make good choices about what to download.” I must say that almost all of their more recent app and games requests have been fully appropriate—and yes, some of them may be a bit more violent then I would have let them play a year or two ago.  Don’t tell them, but the time for their own iTunes account with some automated “parental controls” may be coming sooner then they—or—I thought.

In this Digitally Coached phase, I want my kids to be able to make mistakes that won’t cost them later—won’t damage the digital footprints they are creating. I want my kids to learn how to be respectful and responsible—even if they see people online who aren’t. I want my kids to see how digital tools can be used to connect them to a wider world and more perspectives in good ways and how to navigate and deal with the bad ones. I can do this by talking through their use alongside them—much like a coach. But to coach them, they must have a place and opportunity to develop and practice their skills—and I must have some skills as well.  I know some parents feel challenged keeping up with technology—but even if you are feeling overwhelmed, you can have access to a shared account, or monitor what your kids are saying and doing online. You don’t have to know how it’s done yourself but you can know whether  their content and behavior  are “acceptable” by your standards. Now I know that there will be some readers who will say kids can make end-runs around parents. That’s true, but if you are in a trusting relationship with your kids, it’s my belief that they will keep you in the loop with some accuracy.

The digital coaching phase is where the parent feels that risk can be comfortably managed and the kids will benefit from practice and access. It will vary by kid and by digital tool—and by parent. When a parent in your circle says, “Well, I let my son/daughter use that a year ago!” be prepared with, “I’m glad to hear you feel that confident about his/her ability to manage the risks at this age” and leave it at that.

Digital Independence

On the radio, Kid Carson asked me at what age I thought kids might be ready for their own independent accounts on something like Instagram. That’s a complex question and involves a lot of judgement. First you have to know your child and be able to judge his or her maturity level using a digital tool. If you have worked with your kids through the Digital Proxy and/or the Digitally Coached phases with online tools, you have more information by which you can judge the readiness of your child. Even when you feel fairly confident in their skills, it’s always important to review the values and rules you have in place. Remind your children of those values and rules in your discussions of stories in the news or media. Get your kids to weigh in on the stories. Ask them if they see their friends using the tools in “good ways” and “bad ways” & get them to give you examples and reasons why those uses might be good or bad. Ask them, “What did you do with digital tools today that helped someone?” and “Do you think you did anything that hurt someone or made them feel bad?”.  These kinds of discussions help surface the framework your kids are using to judge their own behaviour.

Before you allow your kids to have independent accounts, be ready for mistakes. Think through a few likely scenarios where your child might do something “wrong” by your standards, what the consequences might be for your child, and how they can rebuild your trust and confidence in them (if it was broken). Discuss those standards, consequences, and reparations with them upfront—negotiate as you feel appropriate. Some parents have been known to draft written contracts (See this article http://www.huffingtonpost.com/janell-burley-hofmann/iphone-contract-from-your-mom_b_2372493.html ).  It’s up to you how formal to make that. In my house we’re happy with discussing  rules  and consequences and reminding our kids of those rules and consequences from time to time. What is important is that everyone is clear on the standards of behaviour expected and the consequences for not meeting those behaviours. I have revoked access to technology on a few instances–but the boys had ways to rebuild my trust and regain access later.

Ultimately, our kids will grow up. They will be in a society where digital tools and social media are widely available and used by most people. As a parent, I believe I should try my best to prepare my children to use technology in safe and responsible ways and to be people I can be proud of—online and off.