A brave new world

2009-08-24 00:00

Kids on display

"Facebook, Twitpics, blogs — where and how should you post pictures of your children? " by Susan Cook

MY sister e-mailed me a cute photo of my three-year-old nephew on his potty with the comment: “I wanted to share this but I wasn’t comfortable putting it on Facebook.” Why did she have reservations about putting yet another photo of her adorable child doing something sweet and ahhhh-worthy on a social networking site?

She’s got privacy settings that only allow her “friends” to see her information, so what’s the harm?

The harm is that she has allowed some third-party applications on Facebook — such as building a family tree and letting people add her birthday to their lists. Pretty innocuous stuff, but third-party applications make a whole lot of your information available to a whole lot of people you have not accepted as “friends”. And just because you are very careful about accepting “friends” does not mean all your “friends” are as picky as you are.

Many parents proudly post photos of their children in their school uniform on Facebook or MySpace with captions such as “Little Johnny’s first day at school”. Now a whole lot of people know your child’s name, approximate age and where he or she goes to school. If they were so inclined, they could go to the school and pose as someone who knows him or her. Very unlikely, and paedophiles usually target children they know, rather than trawl social networking sites looking for likely victims, but it is a possibility.

My teenage nieces have dozens of albums of photos of themselves and their friends on Facebook. They are beautiful young girls and in some of those photos they are wearing swimwear, pyjamas and shorts. All done in innocence but what happens if someone else downloads one of those pictures and manipulates the image?

Once you’ve posted an image it becomes public property and you have no control over how it is used. Just being tagged in a photo by someone else makes your image available. What if someone has a vendetta against one of the girls? They can easily show her in compromising positions and remove clothing with digital imaging software. Cyberbullying of this sort happens, even in South Africa. Remember the trauma experienced by a 14-year-old Johannesburg girl last year who became a victim of cyberbullying?

Like every parent, I think my children are the most fabulous in the world. I’d really love to share pictures of them with my Facebook and blogger friends, but I don’t. And it’s not just because I’m wary of the remote possibility of paedophiles or cyberbullies, but mostly because my children are adopted.

You might be wondering what on earth adoption has got to do with photos on social networking sites. Well, in non-disclosed adoptions, birth parents and adoptive parents have limited contact mediated through a social worker. They know each other’s first names and birth parents are sent photos of the children. And this is where the problem arises. Legally, birth parents may not have any contact with the children they have released for adoption until a child is 18, and then only if the child agrees to that contact and after a great deal of counselling on both sides. Many social workers are using social networking sites as tools to search for birth parents so you don’t need to be a super-sleuth to do so. If my children’s birth parents wanted to trace them on the Internet it would be relatively easy given that they know what they look like, their ages and their first names. So I don’t post pictures of my children on Facebook or my blog and ask my friends and family to respect that and not post pictures of them either.

I keep the photos of my gorgeous children in old-fashioned physical albums, in photo frames and on the fridge. But I would need to invite you to my home to see them and I’m more comfortable with the security of that privacy setting. — Parent 24.com

Porn to be a teen

Have cellphones made porn access an everyday thing for teens? by Sofia Tosolari

I WAS a young, liberal teacher at a local Cape Town high school. When they saw I was 22, new and a little naïve, the children took it upon themselves to get my attention. Result: they began exposing me to the intricacies of their little worlds: to porn, fist fights and parental abuse.

I was soon given access to one favourite Grade 10’s world of secrets, which left me one day staring at a pornographic image on his cellphone.

My teaching career ended soon after that. Having lost contact with the boy in question I decided to interview another connection, a young man in Grade 12. The topic: cellphone porn in local Cape Town high schools. Although he did not mind being identified, we’ll refer to him simply as Ian.

“They call me the sexpert because I know a lot about sex and stuff, I always found it interesting,” he says.

So, I wondered, where do children get the porn?

“You can get it anywhere, and it’s free.” He names a website. “You can download scenes or the whole movie.”

Professional imagery? “Nope, most of this is in fact simply home made. Like with the Grade 8s and 9s, there are children making their own videos and showing them around,” says Ian.

Motives? “I dunno, it’s a status thing. It’s the same with your virginity, and if you haven’t lost it by Grade 10, there’s something wrong with you,” says Ian.

I shouldn’t be surprised, yet sadly I am…

So while porn has always been around for teenagers to gawk at, it seems that much easier with the introduction of cellphones, with stories including “rainbow parties”, where teens gather for an orgy to be filmed on a cellphone.

Sharon Paulus, a social worker at the Parent Centre in Cape Town, confirms this: “Technology has simply highlighted the seriousness of the problem and taken it to a new level,” she says. “Today, teens make their own blue movies, and with more children having access to cellphones and the Internet, this problem could be on the increase.”

So there’s clearly a problem, what to do? According to Paulus, “Parents need to listen, to acknowledge their teen’s feelings without blaming or shaming them.”

On a very practical level: “Parents should have rules guiding the use of cellphones and the consequences if these are broken,” she says.

She says that parents need to consider why their child needs a cellphone in the first place and if they do; does it need to have a camera, bluetooth and Internet access?

“Adolescents who are engaging in this kind of activity are really crying out for help,” says Paulus. “They are letting people know through their behaviour that they lack something in their lives. Love and a sense of belonging are very important for children and are two of their basic human needs. If these are not met in the family the child will go looking for it elsewhere, such as in gangs, cults, substance abuse, sex or relationships.

“Adolescents want excitement, seek peer acceptance, and to find ways to show that they are superior to others. Teens also want to experiment and in the case of teen cellphone porn, it sounds as if there is a need to experiment in a real way and to have the visual proof.”

Do you think cellphone porn is a real issue? Is it a cry for help or normal teen rebellion? — Parent 24.com


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