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For Teens Online, Hundreds of ‘Friends’ and No One to Turn To

• October 19, 2012 • 4:00 AM

A tragic suicide underscores just how easy it is for teenagers to find trouble on the Web—and how hard it can be to escape the past.

Amanda Todd is an Internet sensation. Last week, her name was a trending Twitter #hashtag. A Facebook page honoring her has 590,000 “Likes.” A YouTube message she recorded to the world— “I’m not doing this for attention,” she wrote in an accompanying note, “I’m doing this to be an inspiration and to show that I can be strong”—has been watched more than four million times.

If only Amanda Todd had lived long enough to witness it.

Amanda Todd

Todd was just 12 when, fooling around with friends and a Web cam one day, she flashed her breasts for a chat room stranger. Details remain thin, but it appears that the stranger was man with a history of pedophilia who recorded the encounter and stalked Todd for years afterward, disseminating the photos to her friends via Facebook. He attempted to extort her—“If you don’t put on a show for me I will send ur boobs…”—and she began to spiral: panic attacks, substance abuse, depression. She transferred schools three times, but everywhere she went the topless pics followed, circulating by email and text message among her new classmates.

Todd began to cut herself, attempted suicide by drinking bleach, and finally, in early September, took to YouTube to tell her story in a haunting, now-viral, cry for help. “I can never get that photo back,” she wrote in the video. “It’s out there forever.”

A month later, Todd hanged herself  in her mother’s home. She was one week shy of 16.

What are we to make of such tragedy? Reports of teen “sexting” pandemics and online harassment can seem like so much hype and alarmism—the Web isn’t a real place, after all, so how bad can cyber-bullies really be?—until stories like Todd’s reveal the sheer nastiness of adolescence in the Age of Facebook.

Some data actually exists on the topic, but it’s predictably mixed. A Pediatrics study published last January found that the number of teens and pre-teens who reported appearing in “sexually explicit” videos and photos was as low as 1 percent, while one in 20 youth reported receiving such images.

A June report in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, conducted among 600 students in a single private high school, found that 20 percent of teens had sent explicit photos of themselves, while double that number had received one; one in four students said they were likely to forward such images to classmates.

Last month, the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine published the results of a multi-year longitudinal study that followed 1,000 public school students—black, white, and Hispanic—in southeast Texas. Twenty-eight percent of the teens reported sending “sexts,” while nearly 60 percent had been asked to do so.

The most recent data, from October’s Pediatrics, places the sexting rate among 1,800 Los Angeles teens at 15 percent. “Sexting,” the authors write, “rather than functioning as an alternative to ‘real world’ sexual risk behavior, appears to be part of a cluster of risky sexual behaviors among adolescents.”

The consequences of sexting go well beyond middle-school cattiness and social ostracism. Explicit images made by teens and sent to classmates represent a massive legal gray area in the American legal code, and many states are now struggling to decide if—and when—child pornography laws apply to high school students fooling around with their iPhones. As the New York Times and others have reported, such cases often depend on “prosecutorial discretion,” with often farcical—and sometimes draconian—results.

The Juvenile Law Center’s Marsha Levick and Kristina Moon, writing in the Valparaiso University Law Review in 2010, noted that having a juvenile record can make it hard to find employment, housing, and education. Students convicted under pedophilia laws are forced to register as sex offenders, the consequences of which are legion and long-lasting. “Prosecuting sexting cases as child pornography is a gross misapplication of child pornography statutes by using them as a sword and not a shield to protect exploited child victims,” Levick and Moon argued.

A 2010 Pennsylvania court case, Miller v. Skumanick, shed light on the legal thorniness of sexting. After school officials discovered photos of three topless teens circulating on students’ cell phones, a district attorney threatened to charge those involved – including those depicted — with child pornography crimes unless they agreed to submit to probation, drug testing, and counseling. But the parents of the three girls balked. Their daughters had only posed for the photos—not disseminated them.

“Kids should be taught that sharing digitized images of themselves in embarrassing or compromised positions can have bad consequences, but prosecutors should not be using heavy artillery like child-pornography charges to teach them that lesson,” Witold Walczak, legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said at the time. “These are just kids being irresponsible and careless; they are not criminals and they certainly haven’t committed child pornography.”

Miller v. Skumanick reached the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which blocked the district attorney’s overzealous prosecution. But the court sidestepped the issue of whether the photos actually qualified as child pornography—leaving the matter an unresolved one.

Such questions may be moot in the case of Amanda Todd, whose tormentor is said to have been a man many years her senior (and the kind of monster that child pornography laws are designed to lock up) but her plight and tragic death will likely not be the last of its kind. In the hands of a careless or immature teenager—which is to say, a normal one—an iPhone camera is as dangerous as any drug, and topless pics travel farther, and faster, than any hallway taunt.

The forces of connectivity and technological wizardry—“Forward,” “Share This,” “Like”—that caused news of Todd’s suicide to go viral last week are the same that made her life a teenage nightmare. From Facebook to Instagram to FaceTime, we’ve built a modern world on the premise that everything is best shared with everyone all the time. Adults accept that it’s a Faustian bargain—and we’re prepared to deal with the consequences. Teenagers may not be.

Kevin Charles Redmon
Kevin Charles Redmon is a journalist and critic. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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