I’m not sure when a blog comment should become a post, but the length and ideas discussed in the following response to Gary Stager and Steve Ransom in last week’s post, “Webcam and PSP Porn: More reasons for ongoing digital dialog” seemed to justify a separate post today. Please join in the conversation here or on the original post.
Gary: I think it is overly glib to ask, “Who cares?” A lot of people pay attention to Oprah and the stories she chooses to amplify on her program, and a lot of folks utilize the information she provides to shape their own perceptions of technology and its potential value. I am very concerned about helping encourage balanced approaches to discussing issues like Internet safety and social networking. I agree with Steve’s point, that we all have to be wary of generalizing based on our own experiences. That is the lens through which we each view the world, but certainly there are a host of different factors which play into parenting and these sorts of discussions / issues. To one of your points, I agree many parents should trust their kids more, but essential to that trust is the regular opportunity to engage in dialog. That is a missing element in many households and families, today. For support on this I’d again reference back to Stephen Glenn and Jane Nelson’s work.
While I agree all parents should be aware of this story and the danger / potential for abuse which exists with webcams, I also think it is misleading to portray (as Oprah did on this program as well as the NYT writer who broke this story in his article and video interviews) that this can EASILY happen to ANYONE. When you listen to Justin tell his story (particularly in the NYT video interviews) it becomes clear he was “at risk” before any technology entered the picture. Here are some red flags:
1. He didn’t have any friends at school.
2. He was hospitalized after he was allegedly beaten by his father, and received seven stitches in his head.
3. His own father hired prostitutes for Justin so he could expand his activities on his website.
4. His mother claimed she had no idea anything was wrong.
5. Another student at Justin’s school found his website and circulated the videos around his school, embarrassing Justin and causing him to want to leave school. Yet no one apparently talked to Justin’s mother about this.
As I’ve shared in presentations and blog posts previously, it is my contention that “kids most at risk online” are also “at risk in the face to face world sans technology.” It is true that technology and Internet connections now provide direct access to children (as well as older folks) for people with harmful intentions (like pedophiles) and those types of DIRECT, personal and potentially private connections were not possible in earlier eras.
One of the most important things for people of all ages to realize is that the #1 behavior which puts them at risk online is TALKING ABOUT SEX. In Justin’s case, he registered himself on a webcam site with his picture and age, and immediately got contacted by strangers who eventually groomed him to talk about sex and do sexually related things. Talking about sex with strangers was the #1 tipping point here. Was his mom talking to him about sex? Was his mom talking to him at all? How could she let him go to Las Vegas to meet people she didn’t know, where he was molested and abused? This is a tragic story, and certainly the sexual predators who victimized Justin bear a huge amount of blame that should have severe consequences, but Justin’s parents also shoulder a great deal of this responsibility as does Justin at some point. Oprah and Kurt Eichenwald both shied away from this issue of “free will” and choices in their discussion of Justin’s case, but I don’t think we should ignore it. Yes I agree Justin was a victim, but he was also making choices and was not entirely a pawn at the complete mercy of his environment. Thank GOODNESS at last an adult (Kurt Eichenwald) helped him climb out of his pit of self-destructive behaviors. One lesson from that side of this story is that as individuals, OUR WORDS AND ACTIONS MATTER. Whether we are the biological parent of a young person or not, what we say and do can have an important impact on others.
Given those perspectives, perhaps you can better understand why I strongly take issue with the sentiment “Who cares?” We should care and must care. Yes, this is a sensationalized case, but as Steve points out in his comment these issues are “in our face” more and more in our digitally connected landscape, and we’ve got to do a better job being proactive about addressing them. Simply banning tools and technologies is not a viable answer, and neither is wishfully hoping that kids will be responsible and we just need to encourage parents to be more trusting. As I said before, what we all need are relationships of accountability and frequent opportunities for dialog with others.
Steve, I WILL write more about this down the road… I agree these ideas need to be further elaborated. 🙂
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