For Megan Joy Colcord of Oakland, cellphones and social media are fraught with pitfalls for young people. That’s one reason she won’t allow her 12-year-old to have a cellphone or even a school-issued tablet.

“It’s easy to get caught up in something that seems so innocent and gets out of control so fast and before you know it … they’re so young, they just don’t understand,” Colcord said.

Headlines about a rogue Facebook page with nude and semi-nude pictures of teenage girls from Maine is igniting new conversations within families about safe behavior in the Internet age.

The page was first reported to police Tuesday and they contacted the social media site Facebook – which boasts some 1.4 billion users. The company shut down the page, only to see it reappear repeatedly, under different names.

Police are still trying to track down the person who started the page, but the episode has drawn attention to sexting, the practice of sending a sexually explicit message or selfie taken with a smartphone to someone else, often a boyfriend or girlfriend. The Facebook episode also is raising questions about what parents can do to keep their teenagers safe when they can’t completely control their children’s use of technology.

“Open discussion is the best way to help teens think through the decisions they’re making and to share your family’s values,” said Dr. David Hill, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communicators and Media and author of “Dad to Dad: Parenting Like a Pro.”

Adolescents are impulsive, prone to experimenting and discovering their own sexuality, he said. In an age when cellphones are ubiquitous, that creates what Hill describes as “a perfect storm for sexting.”

HAVING ‘THE TALK’

With a few keystrokes, one digital image can be shared with countless others, perpetuating and magnifying a momentary lapse in judgment.

A 2009 survey commissioned by CosmoGirl.com and The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unwanted Pregnancy found that 20 percent of teenagers reported sending or posting nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves, as did 11 percent of young teenagers, between the ages of 13 and 16. Sexting was reported by 33 percent of those 20 to 26.

“Wow, that’s amazing,” said Jim Violette of Westbrook, a school board member and father of three, the youngest being 18. “All parents really should have discussions with their children concerning social media. What they do as children could have a very serious impact on their young adult life.”

David Spaulding of Windham said he had that conversation with his 17-year-old daughter, now attending college in Boston. He said the pitfalls reflect the way in which cellphones have influenced communication.

“They’re not just using the cellphone to talk. Things like Snapchat and Instagram have replaced texting and phone calls,” Spaulding said, referring to two popular mobile apps used to share photographs, often within seconds.

“It’s so open for misuse. You’re putting hundreds of images a month out there,” he said.

Spaulding said he uses the technology, but much of what he knows about mobile platform social networks he learned from his daughter.

Charlie Bacall, a North Yarmouth parent, has children who are 11, 17 and 19, and he has talked to them about responsible Internet and cellphone use, he said. The talks didn’t, however, cover the consequences of sending inappropriate or risque cellphone photos.

“It was not on our radar screen at the time,” he said. “You teach them what you can teach them and hope they make good choices.”

Faith Bentley of Portland said the main point she and her husband made with their 16-year-old son and 19-year-old daughter is to distinguish between technology and real life.

“It’s much different than talking person to person. It’s easier to be bolder, so you have to be careful,” she said. She also cautions them not to assume that what they see online reflects the real world.

Advice for parents about navigating technology often revolves around issues such as keeping the family computer in a common area so children are less likely to engage in unsafe surfing. Then schools began issuing students laptops and tablets, so students didn’t have to leave their bedrooms. Now, smartphones are common and powerful, connecting young people to the world 24 hours a day in ways parents can’t possibly police.

“You can only be so aware of it,” Colcord said. “They’re just so tech savvy, you don’t know what’s really going on until it’s too late.”

TEENS’ SENTIMENTS MIXED

Several teenagers interviewed last week said they disapproved of whomever launched the Facebook page, but there were mixed sentiments about sexting itself.

Jace Ross, 16, said people under 18 shouldn’t do it because they are essentially producing and distributing an illegal image. For those who are older, “you should only do it if you really trust them,” she said.

Her friend, Kaylie Lacour, also 16, said it’s a matter of trust.

“You have to absolutely, 100 percent trust who you’re sending them to and that they’re not going to use them for bad things,” she said.

Jedd Smitth, 16, believes it depends on the people involved.

“I think it’s totally up to the couple,” he said. “If you’re asked not to spread it around, you should respect that.”

But others felt it is a bad idea, even between intimate partners, because of what could happen if there’s a breakup.

Teen behavior often is driven by a desire for short-term social rewards without much regard for long-term consequences.

“Their brain development is they don’t think about those consequences,” said Ryan Soucie, chairman of the student services department at Scarborough High School. “What we find is, teenagers live in the now. They’re looking at the instant gratification and satisfaction without thinking about what does this mean down the road. … They think they’re invincible.

“As counselors and educators, we really try to educate them on, ‘You have to be aware of what you’re posting, who you’re sending them to and that there could be long-term effects down the road with school and peers, or with colleges, or even applying for a job,’ ” he said.

Seeing an intimate photo shared beyond its intended recipient can be painful.

“The consequences can certainly be psychological, if these images are misused, or if a teen’s trust is violated,” said Hill, the pediatrician. “There can absolutely be social consequences. Depending on what state the teen resides in, there can be rather grave legal consequences.”

CHALLENGE FOR LAW ENFORCEMENT

In Maine, it is a class D crime to possess photos of someone under 16 engaged in sexually explicit conduct and it is a felony to distribute sexually explicit photos of someone under 18.

Sgt. Laurie Northrup, a member of the Maine State Police Computer Crimes Unit, said the problem of nude pictures circulating on the Internet against somebody’s will is a challenging one for law enforcement as well as for social media sites.

Authorities searching for people disseminating child pornography aren’t targeting high school students sharing explicit photos of each other.

Sites like Facebook can be very adept at using “digital DNA” to seek out and eliminate any postings of pornography involving children, but often it can be difficult to tell the age of the person in a picture, particularly if their face isn’t shown.

However, when the behavior of those posting or sharing images morphs into bullying or extortion – as it did in the case of the Facebook page after its creator threatened to post photos of specific people – then police, social media sites and Internet service providers become more concerned.

Police say it is not clear how the person who created the Facebook page obtained the photos, although there have been several recent high-profile incidents involving celebrities whose personal photos were accessed by hackers.

Jennifer Grygiel, an assistant professor of social media at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications, said the Internet is too big to control all the potential sites where such material might appear and the rapid acceleration of technology has magnified the potential problems.

“With the Internet, dissemination of these photos can be tremendous,” she said. “There used to be some kind of safety in a slower medium. When we were all printing newspapers and magazines, the ability for the information to be transferred broadly was minimal back then compared to what it is now.”

 

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