"While this involved a relatively small number of HMS students, we feel that it is important to notify all parents," the email said. "Following board policy and procedures, we contacted the Fort Thomas Police Department and an investigation followed. Parents of the students involved were notified immediately. Our intent was to work swiftly and diligently to ensure that all students involved were safe and treated fairly We will continue to monitor the situation and ask that you have a conversation with your child regarding the importance of using personal electronic devices responsibly both at home and at school."
HMS is not alone in what transpired this week—a search of news headlines in any given month reveals similar headlines in schools across the nation. So how do we, as parents, educators, community leaders and citizens, better protect our children so this doesn’t happen again?
To find out these answers Fort Thomas Matters spoke to some experts: Jeffrey Layne Blevins, Ph.D., associate professor and head of the University of Cincinnati’s Department of Journalism, and Nancy Jennings, an associate professor and undergraduate director at University of Cincinnati, and director of the Children’s Education and Entertainment Research (CHEER) Lab. Both Blevins and Jennings recently held a two-week workshop on teens and social media at Bridgetown Middle School in Cincinnati.
At what age should parents begin talking to their children about technology, privacy and consent?
“These days, I don’t think there is a time that is too early, but I think a good rule of thumb would be whenever they have access to a mobile device, middle school or sooner, that is the time to start talking to them,” Blevins says. In his own family, whenever an incident hits the news, Blevin talks to his sons about it. “For me that has worked well—rather than me lecturing them about something, we talk about a story in the news, discuss the different choices that people made, and what choices that they could have made that would have worked better,” he says.
Jennings echoes Blevins sentiments in that the earlier you can have these conversations with your children, the better. “Even very young children use technology in a variety of ways,” she says. “It has become a familiar part of their lives and it is important to start conversations about technology early. We still find that very young children (preschoolers and earlier) tend to watch program content more than go online. However, they are watching their shows on devices and via streaming services more and more often. Talking about when and where to use devices and privacy and consent are particularly important too as they enter elementary school and are expected to use technology and accounts at school.”
Some of the advice she shares with children and teens? Never give your password to anyone. Be cautions and be skeptical. If in doubt about an email or message, consult a trusted adult.
Jennings stresses the importance of keeping it conversational. “When parents come across as demanding and restrictive, teens will shut down and may ignore the sage advice that parents are trying to share,” she says. “These devices and social media accounts are part of their social world and how they communicate and interact with their peers in many cases, particularly for younger teens who aren’t driving yet and may have limited access to peers after school hours.”
Blevins adds that it’s important to not only focus on the negatives. Take the time to talk about the positives of social media and mobile devices. “It’s a great way to stay in touch with family and friends, and to tell our own stories,” he says. “With that, what they need to be made aware of are the risks involved—that there really is no such thing as online privacy. Whatever you put out there—even though you think it is private, just to your friends and followers—it is not. There are many more people in your social media audience than what you realize.” Blevins also says that focusing on the legal aspects that your children may not be aware of is extremely important (this is detailed below).
Also of importance: making sure your child understands they can come to you when they have a problem or have made a mistake. “Clearly, they know now that mistakes were made perhaps as a result of not knowing the rules and the law,” Jennings says in response to the HMS incident. “Be open to hearing about mistakes and finding ways to handle them. Catching these early is far better than after they have escalated into something much bigger. Social media does tend to escalate quickly, so seek help and support as soon as possible.”
Jennings offers these key points to repeat over and over again:
• Never give your password to anyone, even a trusted friend.
• Report questionable behavior and messages as soon as possible to a trusted adult.
• Sending nudes images of yourself or others will never work out for you.
• Think before you post or send messages.
• Let your conscious be your guide.
• When you hesitate to send a message, that is your conscious asking you to think before you do something you might regret.
• Respect yourself and others.
• Treat others online like you would in person.
• Remember that it is easy to say and do things online that you might not say or do in person.
• Think about how others will interpret your words and actions, even online.
• You have the power to tell your own story, what story do you want to tell? To share with others?
Why do teens do this?
First of all, it’s not just teens. “The sad thing is there are many adults who send sexually explicit images of themselves to partners that end up on revenge porn websites and they are stunned that it happened,” Blevins says. “It is possible that middle-schoolers feel pressured to do so, and are simply unaware of the incredible risk they are taking.”
Jennings says peer pressure happens online just as much as it does in person. “Some teens have experienced blackmail and threats that if they don't send pictures, rumors will be spread to others about them,” she says. “Once a picture is sent, the person making the threat may continue to ask for more, insisting they will spread rumors or share their pictures if they don't keep sending them.”
Blevins says that he and Jennings try to reinforce that peer pressure can work both ways. He recommends that teens talk to their friends about how this is not a good idea, and that they educate each other with the stories they’ve heard in the news. “One of the key points of feedback that Nancy and I received from parents and teachers at Bridgetown is that kids came home talking about what we discussed in our presentation,” Blevins says. “The only way we can make them aware of the gravity of the situation and the risks involved is to talk about it with regularity.”
Often teens and tweens don’t realize that a picture can be saved, shared and altered, particularly on Snapchat when images can disappear within 10 seconds, without their knowledge, Jennings says. “They often do not understand that even though they took the picture, they can’t give consent or permission for it to be used, just like they can't sign legal documents like contracts and why parental permission for field trips and administering medication at school is still required for teens and tweens under the age of 18 years. Some teens and tweens may also post pictures or comments as a way to get attention from others or to test a relationship with one another.” Messages on social media, she says, can be easily misinterpreted. “This is why having conversations early with children is so important.”
Blevins adds that it’s important, however, to not to shame and further humiliate those who made a mistake and shared images of themselves, and maybe got into a situation where they were being blackmailed. “They need our love and support more than ever,” he says.
What are the legal consequences?
“Anyone under the age of 18 cannot legally give consent, so even if someone under 18 takes the image of their self, or allows someone else to, it is still child pornography,” Blevins says. “And, if you send the image to someone else, you have just distributed child pornography. If you have that image on a mobile device, it is possession of child pornography. The consequences can be extremely severe—if you are convicted you can be a registered sex offender [and] be place on a federal database. That is something that can haunt you the rest of our life. At the very least, you are putting yourself at the mercy of law enforcement as to whether or not they will prosecute you. Even if law enforcement exercises some discretion because a minor did it unwittingly, the child can still face suspension or being expelled from the school.”
Jennings reinforces the severity of sharing, in particular, nude or partially nude photos of teens and tweens. “Nude pictures of children under the age of 18 are child pornography,” she says. “When you take a nude picture of a child, you are creating child pornography. When you send a nude picture of a child, you are distributing child pornography. When you receive a nude picture of a child, you are now in possession of child pornography. All of these are illegal.”
So what happens when a teen or tween receives a nude picture they didn’t ask for or intend to receive? “This is when early reporting is so important,” Jennings says. “Yes, there are going to be consequences, but reporting this early is a key factor to facing less severe outcomes. Also, this is a time to take the phone or device that has the picture to authorities such as the police. They are better equipped to deal with both the safe removal of the picture from your device and the legal consequences than the typical citizen.”
What rights should parents and teens be aware of?
“Child pornography is an incredibly serious offense,” Blevins says. “Police can question a minor, without the parents’ consent, so long as the child is not in custody. If they are taken into custody, then they should be allowed to at least call their parents. Some states require parents to be present during custodial questioning, while others don’t specifically require that—like most laws, there is a lot of grey.”
Blevins says schools can confiscate mobile devises. “That happens all of the time pursuant to school polices,” he says. “Whether or not a search warrant is needed for law enforcement to search them is another matter—and it is a really grey matter, most likely a case-by-case decision.” [Fort Thomas Police Department did not comment.]
Once this happens at a school, what steps should parents, teachers, school officials, teens, tweens and the entire community take to prevent it from happening again?
“Education is key to prevent this from happening again—or even in the first place,” Jennings says. “Speak openly and honestly about the situation and about the consequences of actions taken online in general. Provide a safe space for youth to be able to report any online behaviors or messages that they question.”
Blevins echoes these sentiments. “Be educated,” he says. “Be aware. Digital media literacy and social media education should be reinforced in school curricula. Also, talk about these kinds of cases, especially when they appear in the news. Telling stories, exploring stories and critically examining what happened is a great way to learn.”
Following is a list of helpful websites for parents about social media, provided by Jennings and Blevins.
• Common Sense Media: An independent nonprofit organization with information about media, reviews about media content, current research, advice, and tools to help navigate the digital world.
• Center on Media and Child Health: An academic research center at Boston Children’s Hospital that translates research into actionable guides about media for parents.
• NetSmartz Workshop: An interactive, educational program of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children that provides age-appropriate resources to help teach children how to be safer on- and offline.
• Cyberbullying Research Center: An academic research center which serves as a clearing house for up-to-date information about the nature, extent, causes and consequences of cyberbullying among adolescents. For reviews and recommendations of parental monitoring apps, go here.
• A Wired Family: An online blog and resource for information about the latest trends in technology for digital families.
• CHEER Lab: An academic research lab at the University of Cincinnati with the mission of applying research to serve as a media mentor.