Batavia High School’s gymnasium warms with the sweaty energy of a ninth-grade assembly. A girl with dark, wavy hair lingers in the doorway, her fingers entwined with those of a boy. She studies his face as they enter the room, the way you do when love is young and new. “Cell phones away. Everybody: cell phones away. I see one. I see another one—put them away,” a guidance counselor warns the gathered 14- and 15-year-olds. A PowerPoint dominates a screen in the middle of the gym. Before it stands Stephen Smith, Director of Educational Leadership from Cincinnati Bell Technology Solutions. He’s given this presentation before—to more than 114,000 students, parents, and teachers.
Batavia High has brought Smith in to talk about the power of digital technology—about the images we assume are private and how quickly they can fall into the wrong hands. “You’re good at the mechanics of social media,” Smith grants the crowd of fidgeting teenagers, “but you don’t understand what’s going on in the background.”
Pressing delete doesn’t work, he tells them. Images posted to social media sites are picked up by webcrawlers within hours and can exist on the Internet in perpetuity. “It’s always on the servers of Facebook, Instagram, Ask.fm, Twitter,” he says. “You can’t get rid of it.”
A splash of photos dominates Smith’s screen. The middle image is of a sun-kissed teen, blonde, blue-eyed, smiling. Her name is Jessica Logan. Hers is among the series of cautionary tales Smith shares. Logan was 18 when she committed suicide in 2008. It started with an intimate photo that was maliciously forwarded and spread like wildfire through Sycamore High School and other local schools. According to Cynthia Logan, Jessica’s mother, the abuse that followed was relentless. She was ostracized, pushed, and spat upon. Things were thrown at her.
Smith never knew Jessica Logan, but seeing her story on the evening news rattled him enough to refocus his work. “I remember sitting there with my wife, thinking what a tragedy this is,” he says. At the time, Smith was reeling from the death of his infant grandson. “We tried to move heaven and earth to save his life, and there was really nothing that could be done.” But he felt Logan’s fate was avoidable. If young people better understood the mechanics of technology and the consequences of their actions, if they knew their images were never truly private and that their words could have devastating effects, they would be more careful. The next day Smith asked his boss, Cincinnati Bell president John Burns, if he could develop a free outreach program for local schools and parents.
Now Smith spends a third of his job doing this—warning teachers, parents, and kids like the ones at Batavia High about the consequences of their online activities. Local prosecutors bookend the talk, giving a grim description of the possible consequences: Community service. Pornography charges. Juvenile detention.
Up in the risers, the girl with the sweeping hair clutches her boyfriend’s hand. They’ve been tangled in a long plunge into one another’s eyes throughout the entire presentation. They haven’t heard a thing.
According to A Thin Line, a study done in collaboration with MTV, the Associated Press, and University of Chicago researchers, in 2013, 49 percent of teens and young adults reported experiencing some form of digital abuse—including rumors spread, accounts stolen, privacy invaded, and threats made. And about a quarter of young people surveyed reported that they had sent or received “sext” messages.
Jennifer K. Deering has seen more than her share. In the past year, Deering, assistant chief of the juvenile division for the Hamilton County prosecutor’s office, has seen middle school students forward nude photos of themselves; posts of teens engaging in inappropriate sexual activity; and a naked image of a girl posted by her ex-boyfriend.
Remember when everyone only worried about what kids posted on Facebook? Today the real action is on Twitter and Instagram. And then there’s SnapChat—the app that, according to Smith, was “known in its infancy as the sexting app because the images, in theory, disappeared after a predetermined amount of time.” If the receiver takes a screen shot, an alert is supposed to be relayed to the sender. But cheap apps can override SnapChat’s vanishing photo feature, so that images can be captured without the sender’s knowledge—ideal for harmless Photoshopped goofballery and equally handy for saving nude pictures to forward later in post-break-up revenge.
And that’s the challenge: to impress upon teens who live and breathe in tweets that the same technologies that are used for youthful silliness can ruin their lives.
When I asked four ninth-grade students at Batavia High School if they had knowledge of anyone at their school having sent an inappropriate image, all indicated they had. They all said they would never do such a thing themselves. (Coincidentally or not, all said their parents have their social media passwords.) In a group of slightly older students at Finneytown High School, all but one had received an inappropriate photo. One student—who preferred to remain anonymous—considered it a joke: “You say, ‘Oh, good thing you didn’t send me a picture of your wiener,’ and then they send you a picture.”
For digital natives who live publicly—tweeting when they wake up from a nap or SnapChatting as they sit on the toilet—intimacy is a loose term. I asked the Finneytown students to apply sexting to the old-fashioned ballpark metaphor for sex, wondering along what baseline the naked selfie falls. Do you send it before or after a first kiss? Or is it something saved for later, maybe after rounding home plate?
“It’s before you start holding hands,” said 17-year-old Graham Bartsch.
Bartsch, who said he rarely uses Twitter for more than retweets, seemed generally impatient with teen social media drama. But his estimation of when you launch a naked selfie isn’t hyperbole.
“A lot of the girls who are not yet ready for intercourse will give a boy a topless picture to hold it off longer,” says Parry Aftab, an internet privacy and security lawyer who helped usher through the Jessica Logan Act—Ohio’s anti-bullying law. “The kids who are a little more conservative and more innocent sexually will do this to avoid having to have sex.”
When it comes to sending scandalous selfies, Aftab claims, “boys do it exactly the same percentage of the time as girls.” In fact, two of the most recently reported cases of teen sexting in Clermont County have centered around boys sending out naked images of themselves, unsolicited. Despite the fact that they are juveniles themselves, young people can be charged with creating, distributing, and possessing child pornography.
“We prosecute. It’s a felony,” says Jeannette Nichols, Clermont County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney. “They could be registered as a sex offender.” When Nichols speaks to students, she makes the harshest legal ramifications clear, although she has yet to push for sex offender status on a sexting case. On the other hand, she’s yet to get one of the extreme cases Smith talks about—suicides and ruined lives. “It’s a matter of time, to be honest with you,” she adds with a sigh.
Ohio does not have specific cyberbullying or sexting laws; when young people are bullied online, prosecutors must apply charges using an alternative, such as telecommunications harassment law. With incidents involving sexting—a kid sending his/her own picture, say, or forwarding pictures they receive—prosecutors must decide on a case-by-case basis how to apply existing pornography statutes. “We’re dealing with two different people,” says Nichols. “A typical 16-year-old versus a really creepy guy who needs to be registered as a sex offender. And so we treat them accordingly.”
In Ohio, the harshest penalties are actually quite unlikely. As Deering puts it “juvenile court is generally designed to rehabilitate an offender.” But other states have taken tougher stances, and teens convicted for sexting have been registered as sex offenders: a label far harder to delete than a SnapChat photo.
The 2012 Jessica Logan Act forces schools to report all harassment and bullying to the parents of the victim and the abuser. (Typically, school resource officers also contact the police or prosecutor’s office, but Aftab recommends that parents also contact law enforcement to start an investigation.) Many districts, including Finneytown Schools, integrate their own lessons about cybersafety, harassment, intimidation, and bullying into the curriculum. The Jessica Logan Act requires, when funds are available, that schools give age-appropriate instruction on these policies.
As such, it’s become part of the business of teaching. After all, what generation of teenagers hasn’t faced coming of age in a shifting culture, at a time when they are just barely mature enough to master technology responsibly? It used to be cars and drag-racing; for the Boomers it was contraception and drugs. Now, the digital domain is flooded with kids whose private lives are public fodder. And so, just as our education system absorbed driver’s training and sex ed, Smith and teachers in school districts like Finneytown cover online privacy and the dangers of peer-abuse.
Around the table in Finneytown, cell phones materialize, are checked, then disappear back into pockets. “I’m on Twitter all the time,” says Molly Fisher, a graduating senior. “You’re just looking for the approval of other people. You’re seeing how many retweets and favorites you’re getting. Everyone does it.” She brags half-jokingly about getting a bunch of favorites on a given tweet, but points out “it’s all part of the self-satisfaction that people are siding with you and people feel the same that you do.”
She speaks a truth about social media and being a teenager all at once. And that might be key to why it feels so devastating to a kid when technology doesn’t deliver the approval he or she is seeking—whether it’s for their bodies, their thoughts on religion or TV, or simply for their personalities.
It also feels inescapable. And that’s what makes this generation’s experiences in the era of cyberharassment different from the schoolyard taunts many older adults suffered in youth: It’s so pervasive. After his talks, students often come up to Smith and tell him about their encounters with cyberbullying. “They will tell you that it follows them,” Smith says. Nevertheless, “none of them—and this part I don’t understand—want to get rid of their devices.” They’ve always got their phones, and so harassment flows everywhere with them, in their pockets, in their hands, layered on top of whatever else might be going on in the locker room, the school halls, or the child’s inner life.
It’s important to remember the mercurial mentality of teens, who don’t all experience the world in the same way. Last year Tyrone Lauderdale Jr., a 16-year-old from Dayton, committed suicide after being bullied at school and online. In January, 14-year-old Matthew Homyk of Brunswick, Ohio—a shy freshman with long hair and a stutter—committed suicide after being harassed on Ask.fm, an anonymous question-and-answer platform that allows anyone to post comments and questions to a person’s profile. In his talks, Smith gives the example of Kenyatta Parker, a Chicago teen who took her life after sharing a video of herself dancing, which precipitated an onslaught of Facebook nastiness. No one knew until after her death that she had allegedly been molested as a child, that the shining honors student had a dark pall hanging over her already.
“My strongest belief is that the word bullying is overused,” says Cynthia Logan, Jessica’s mother. “It’s been used for years and adults don’t take it seriously.” She uses words like abuse and harassment, because these fit the severity of what young people go through.
Smith says for teens in past generations “their homes were their safe haven.” But because young people are always connected, there is no sanctuary. When a young person is already depressed or troubled or confused, a constant stream of cybercruelty can be the ultimate toxin.
Do a simple online image search for a local school and find photos of school dances, student events, sports. “But many of them come from you,” Smith always warns student groups. “If you don’t have your social media sites locked down to private, anybody can legally do a search and…can take your photographs and put them on a server to be searched.”
Smith cautions that students’ online lives can influence future employers and college admissions offices. Indian Hill High School principal Antonio Shelton called Smith in to talk to his students as part of a broader effort to help them protect their privacy online. The school hasn’t had many reports of cyberharassment; the impulse to protect students’ online reputations has been driven by college recruitment. Some admissions officers ask during interviews what they might see if they looked at a student’s Facebook or Twitter page. “We want our kids to be aware—people are watching you,” says Shelton.
At Mother of Mercy High School, Smith warned students: “Every [tweet] you send out has been recorded and is part of the Library of Congress.” A wave of nervous chatter swept the room. “They think, a hundred years from now, that it will say a little bit,” he added, “and tell the tale of what our culture was like in 2014.”
And what tale do our kids’ collective tweets tell? If you ask Cynthia Logan, it’s an ugly one. What happened to her child was “like a mob mentality,” she says. “They came in like vultures, and they didn’t let up.” And she isn’t letting parents off the hook for the mindless cruelty of their offspring. “If you’re going to buy your child a phone, a computer, an Xbox and just hand it to them and walk away, then the parent is the problem.”
Smith also gets frustrated at times talking to parents about cybersafety. “Frankly, why those parents don’t insist on those devices being placed on the dining room table until the kids go off to school, I have no idea,” he says.
If a (slight) silver lining can be found, it’s that as teenagers share, they’re also sharing more with their parents. In MTV’s 2013 A Thin Line survey, 44 percent of young people said they sought help from parents and family when they experienced digital abuse; granted, that’s less than half, but it was up more than 25 percent from 2011. Seven percent fewer young people reported experiencing digital abuse, and sexting had gone down 20 percent in the national poll over two years.
That’s all good news, of course. But it won’t put the genie back in the bottle. Yesterday’s teenagers grew up with the threat that an infraction might land on their “permanent record.” Today’s kids are just waking up to the fact that it’s all permanent record.
Back in Batavia, as a bell rings, Smith thanks his audience for their time as they shuffle on to the chaos of lunch. The girl with the wavy hair wanders out, still gripping the boy’s hand as if it had been Gorilla Glued there. Toward the end of the pack, a girl with tight red curls in a ponytail surreptitiously retrieves her cell phone, slides it open, and starts typing.
Originally published in the June 2014 issue.