Last Thursday, I logged on to the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times and saw two related stories. In the Washington Post, education reporter Valerie Strauss reported that Montgomery County police were investigating a sexting scandal that was brought to their attention by a school principal who discovered that a student had brought an iPod touch to school containing inappropriate photos of high school and middle school females students -- and that those photos were being sold and bought by other students.
The Los Angeles Times was reporting that four teenage boys in San Bernardino County were cited for posting "nude and seminude" pictures of their classmates on the Internet. This case involved 14 and 15 year old girls who had taken photos of themselves and sent them to their friends. The photos ended up on the internet and four 15 year old boys were cited for possession of harmful matter depicting a person under 18 and for sexual exploitation of a minor.
Also last week, Microsoft announced the launch of the Kin, a new cell phone that emphasizes social networking and messaging -- a product aimed at 15-30 year olds, or what Microsoft calls the "social generation." The phone launched with a comprehensive ad campaign, including a promotional video that featured a scene encouraging sexting. In the video, a young man is shown lifting up his shirt and taking a photo of his bare chest and then sending it to a young woman.
Given that over the last year, it seems like every week we read about a new technology-driven controversy on middle and high school campuses across America, I was shocked to see that Microsoft was encouraging this behavior. It was irresponsible and outrageous for an industry leader like Microsoft to take this form of digital abuse and position it as "cool and hip" in order to sell a new product that is directly targeted to a teen audience.
On Friday morning, after receiving many complaints from concerned citizens, including Consumer Reports and Common Sense Media, Microsoft did the right thing and pulled the ad. But what really concerns me, as an advocate for parents and kids on media issues, is that Microsoft didn't think there was an issue in the first place. There seems to be a disconnect between the "social generation" and the rest of society.
But there are things we can do about this.
Education. The new tech-driven problems like sexting and cyberbullying that are affecting our kids are serious. First, we have to understand what our kids are doing in their "digital lives" and we have to work together to get the message out that their online actions have offline consequences. As a nation, we all have a stake in how our kids grow, develop, and ultimately choose to lead in this digital world in which we all live. We have a responsibility to educate kids to become smart digital citizens - and that entails educating ourselves too. Leaders in industry, education, government, and of course, parents need to educate themselves about how kids are using new technologies so we can then help our kids be smart digital citizens.
Advocacy. Parents and educators, you are on the frontlines dealing with these issues every day. Let your voice be heard. Get involved at your kids' school and recommend that they implement a digital literacy program to educate students and teachers. Email your elected officials and tell them that they need to do something about cyberbullying and sexting - that there is a need for education on these issues in your community. And when you see ads like Microsoft's, please write to them and explain why the promotion of sexting is inappropriate for any circumstances. If we are not talking about these issues in a serious way, society is not going to fully understand the challenges you are facing.
If there is one thing we all know, it is that technology is not going anywhere. It is already at the center of our kids' lives -- whether it's for education, play, or socializing. We should all take notice, wake up and take these media issues seriously.
If there is another thing we all know, it is that marketers and advertisers do not always have the best interest of parents and kids in mind. There are going to be hundreds of new products just like Microsoft's phone entering the market -- things are aimed at the very same young people we are trying to protect. It would be naïve for anyone to expect corporations to make the correct choice in ad campaigns when the reality is that adolescents and young adults are important targets for their bottom line. That is where education and advocacy comes into play -- education of our kids and accountability for advertisers. Do you think we are ready as a society to fill that gap?