Today's post is from Frederick S. Lane, an author, attorney, expert witness, and lecturer who has appeared on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, the BBC, and MSNBC. He is the author of six books, including American Privacy: The Four-Hundred-Year History of Our Most Contested Right and the just-released Cybertraps for the Young.
The scandal that cost Anthony Weiner his seat in Congress may seem to many parents like yet another reason to turn off the news. That's an understandable reaction: parenting is challenging enough without the added burden of explaining why a Congressman would want to send an explicit photo of himself to someone he didn't really know.
But believe me, your kids already know a lot more about sexting than you might suspect (or like). After all, former-Rep. Weiner is hardly the first high-profile sexter, and your children don't have to be news junkies to know that Rep. Christopher Lee, ex-quarterback Brett Favre, celebrity mechanic Jesse James, and golfing legend Tiger Woods have all been caught with their cell phones down. And it's even more likely that your kids have followed the sexting exploits of celebrities closer to their own age, like "Hannah Montana" alter ego Miley Cyrus or "High School Musical" star Vanessa Hudgins.
In middle schools and high schools around the country, it's common knowledge among students that some of their classmates take and exchange nude photos. The exact percentage of kids engaging in this behavior is a matter of debate (1 in 10? 1 in 5?), but the fact that it happens and that large numbers of kids know about it is not.
That's one of the main reasons that I wrote my newest book, Cybertraps for the Young." It is designed to educate parents and teachers about the legal trouble that kids can get into online. Whereas most Internet child safety books approach the topic from the perspective of the child of victim, I think that the time has come to seriously discuss the potential dangers of the child as perpetrator.
So rather than turn off the news in disgust or try to change the channel, parents should embrace the Weiner scandal for it what it is: a great opportunity to educate their children about the risks of online behavior. The conversation obviously need to be adjusted to reflect each child's age and maturity level, but here are some basic concepts that every child should be taught if they're using electronic devices, regardless of their age:
1. It's WAY TOO EASY to Be Stupid Online
Rep. Weiner is actually one of the more technologically-savvy members of Congress. But as Bianca Bosker of the Huffington Post Tech page pointed out, he got into trouble because he made a simple, careless mistake: typing the "@" symbol instead of "D" for "direct message," which meant that the photo of his briefs went to the general Twitter feed rather than directly to his intended recipient. The so-called "direct message fail" is merely one of the seemingly endless number of ways your child can be tripped up online. Everyone makes mistakes, of course, but what kids need to understand is that if they make a mistake online, the consequences can be much more far-reaching and longer-lasting than they realize.
2. Just Because You Can Do Something Online Doesn't Mean You Should
Technology makes it all too easy to take inappropriate photos or type inappropriate messages, and share them with the entire world. Often, it's only a couple of clicks of a button, which can make it incredibly tempting to do. But just because something is easy doesn't mean it's the right thing to do. Tell your child to THINK!! and then to ask herself, will posting something online hurt her family, friends, or future?
3. If It's Digital, It's Public
As the Weiner fiasco painfully demonstrates, if your child digitizes something, it is virtually inevitable that he will lose control of it. That's even more true if he shares it on a social network site or via e-mail. Even if former Rep. Weiner had typed his tweet as he no doubt intended, the simple fact of the matter is that he was still sending a digital file to someone who could save it, re-tweet it, post it to the Web, or sell it to a news outlet or blogger (most of which happened). As Stewart Brand once said, "Information wants to be free."
4. Employers, Colleges, and Journalists Will Find Out
All major employers and most of the better colleges are looking at social media sites when they review job or college applications. If your child has posted an embarrassing or inappropriate image of himself on a social media page, the odds are very good (regardless of his privacy settings) that it will be seen by someone making a decision about his future.
5. They're Called "Privates" for a Reason
Your child (or your boyfriend, for that matter) may think it's hysterically funny or irresistibly flirtatious to take explicit self-portraits and distribute them online, but it is stupid, embarrassing, and dangerous to do so. Rep. Weiner may be an adult, but if your child is under the age of 18, he or she is violating state and federal child pornography laws by following his example. The potential penalties are severe, including expulsion from school, incarceration, and/or registration as a sex offender. None of that looks good on a college or job application.
In my previous book, American Privacy: The 400-Year History of Our Most Contested Right, I describe in some detail the corrosive impact that technology has had on the concept of personal privacy. The core value in the concept of privacy is the ability to control what information you release and to whom, and to control how that information is used. The value of individual control over one's personal information is infused into the Bill of Rights, and is essential not only to our individual safety and freedom, but also to the long-term well-being of our democracy. We may laugh at the late-night jokes told at Anthony Weiner's expense, but they mask the far more significant issues raised by the relentless collection of information about our shopping habits, our preferences, our opinions, and our beliefs.
The time to talk to your kids about these types of issues (particularly the avoidance of criminal activity) is always about three years before you think they're ready. It may be five years before YOU'RE ready to have these conversations, and that's understandable. If you just don't think either you or your child is prepared to discuss this right now, don't worry: there'll undoubtedly be other high-profile cases for you to discuss in the months and years to come. But remember, the goals here are not only to help your kids avoid serving as an object lesson for some other generation of kids, but to help them understand the importance of personal privacy in our democracy. They'll thank you for it someday.