First, let’s start with the correct definition of what happened. A 14-year-old male allegedly threatened a 13-year-old girl with rape if she did not send nude photographs of herself. He also allegedly alluded that he was watching her, which is typically a hush tactic; i.e., "you tell on me and I'll make it worse for you."
This is more than just a threat on social media. It’s technically a form of what’s known as sexting extortion, or ‘sextortion.’
“Sexting” refers to taking nude photos of oneself and sharing the photo via cellphone. And why do teens do that? Because today, it is considered a form of relationship currency. Click here to read more of the legal dangers of underage consensual sexting.
But this was not consensual. This was extortion, and you’d better believe the police will get involved when something like this happens.
I’m not going to get into the whys with this column — I don’t know the parents or the kids, so I’m not qualified to speak on why it happened.
But, I am going to talk about how this was — and still is — preventable.
Since 2002, through Governor King’s 1:1 laptop initiative, every middle school and high school student in Maine was granted access to first a laptop, and later an iPad, to help them advance their 21st-Century skills.
But the gift came with virtually little to zero training on ethical digital behaviors and cyberbullying. I know, because throughout the 2000s, I was doing public presentations on cyberbullying for schools.
In 2012, when our cyberbullying book came out, a law passed in Maine mandating every single middle and high school enact a cyberbullying policy with training for the kids and for the staff.
I went around to schools and conferences on top of my full time job, for more than a year and gave free presentations to schools about sexting and other forms of cyberbullying. It opened the eyes of administrators and staff from dozens of Maine schools; but in 2013, still doing these presentations, I can honestly say, maybe three to four of the schools I visited got serious about the policy.
No school I knew of had, at that point, implemented any serious cyberbullying training or curriculum. (Not just some half-day assembly that students would forget in a few weeks.)
This, is of course, a field observation. Things might have changed now. I know MLTI offers Common Sense Media’s free Digital Literacy and Citizenship curriculum to schools, but it’s such light lunch. It does not get into the roots of serious cyberbullying (with all of its various moving parts).
I know teachers and administrators have earnestly tried to get a handle on this, but they’re not getting supported at the top.
So, it’s up to the parents. That’s what I’ve concluded after three years of working to try and turn Maine’s cyberbullying problem around. There has been woefully little done to even address it, much less turn it around. Three years after this law passed, Maine still ranks dead last in New England for controlling cyberbullying according to the latest study. Massachusetts ranks first nationally.
So, what can you do? First, it doesn’t matter what the app was used in this sexting extortion. (For the record, it was Snapchat).
If you kill the app off your kid’s phone, another toxic one will spring up in six months. Guaranteed. What you have to do is have ‘The Conversation’ when it comes to your kids’ use of digital devices.
The Conversation is a three-pronged approach, based on the strategies of self-defense:
- Discuss what you consider acceptable and unacceptable uses of your child’s digital device. Here's how one Massachusetts mom got her son to sign an 18-point agreement on the condition of receiving his new iPhone. Use her strategy. Likely you already own the devices and that's your leverage.
- Get familiar with the most frequent apps and social media platforms your teen is drawn to. Don't know what these tactics are? Stay on top of it with our Hot Topics blog on the most common types of cyberbullying.
- Next, have a talk about conflict. Conflict is the root of most cyberbullying situations and it is inevitable your child will be involved in conflict at some point with a friend, a boyfriend/girlfriend, a teacher or even a stranger. Whether your child is the target, the instigator or caught in the cross-fire, "pre-playing" the potential outcomes to the conflict is key.
Snapchat is a free app for iPhones, iPads and Android phones, allowing you to send a photo that will supposedly disappear in 10 seconds.
It was originally designed so the recipient couldn’t save the photo, but there have been workarounds for years to thwart that without Snapchat notifying the sender.
For minors, (and even impressionable young adults above 18) it is a sure fire way to get in legal trouble with even just one mistake. It guarantees many years of emotional pain and self-loathing when that “mistake,” a nude selfie, gets into the hands of a malicious person who shares or publicizes it.
If you have had The Conversation and you trust your teen 100 percent that he or she will never make that mistake, it’s your call to let him or her keep Snapchat and/or other apps like it on their digital devices. But if you even have a single doubt, get rid of it off your minor’s phone, iPad or digital device.
That’s my blunt advice.
Ignore the cries, “But everybody has it. I’ll be unpopular.”
Refer them to the 18-point agreement.
Here’s how to delete the app off each device:
- Go to https://support.snapchat.com/delete-account in any web browser.
- Enter your Snapchat username and password.(See 18-point agreement once again for this password)
- Check the box confirming you aren't a robot.
- Click on Submit.
- Re-enter your password on the next page.
- Click on Delete My Account.