As a parent, you know that heavy conversations are usually had when you least expect them. When we sat down at dinner this week, I expected a recap of the school day, a debate on March Madness and maybe a bit of the never ending debacle that is the present presidential race. I definitely did not anticipate the in-depth discussion on sexting and child pornography that followed bracket busters and Donald Trump.
After filling us in on an awesome recess, my 9-year-old daughter told her brother and me that a week ago she had found a naked picture on an adults phone. She was uncomfortable and curious. Why would a grown up have a naked picture of someone else on their phone? I had only a moment to digest that this was the first I was hearing of this incident and decide which path I'd go down. Path A: Tell her it's not something that she would or should understand at nine years old and not to worry about it. Path B: Salmon in mouth, launch into a sensitive talk, sans prep. With my 12-and-a-half-year-old son, salmon hanging out of his mouth watching, I chose path B.
My girl, young enough to still ask for a joint wash in my "cool shower," doesn't mind a free to be you and me party. While I am certain my son wishes I would get underwear that covers my tush, he is used to my undergarments. Since bodies, boobies and the rest are not scary or off limits with my children, I needed to know the scenario that caused her to squirm. I asked what happened and sufficiently confident that no wrongdoing occurred by her or the adults involved, I took a step back and started with her initial question.
Why does someone have a naked picture of another person on his or her phone? This was easy enough to explain in language she understood. "Some adults like to look at naked pictures and some adults like to share pictures of themselves naked. I know that it seems yucky, but you might change your mind as you get older." After surveying the disgusted looks on their youngish faces, I forged ahead. We were in this so I might as well delve deeper.
The raison d'etre for this discussion was the perfect example of how, even with grown adults, things can go awry. I asked my kids if they thought the person in the picture was embarrassed that Emily saw it. Yes. I asked if they thought she would be embarrassed knowing I was told about it in detail. Yes. Would it be embarrassing that her brother now knew the story? Yes. Had my daughter decided to text it to me, the embarrassment would have doubled. Had Emily, in surprise, sent it to a friend, embarrassment multiplies. Luckily (very) for those involved, she did neither. There was no question though that even with two consenting adults and trust between them, their private picture got out and was likely embarrassing. Kids understand humiliation, want to avoid it at all costs and for now, this message resounded.
I could have stopped there, but machete (the glass of wine variety) in hand, on I went. I told them that teens do this too. I looked my son straight in his eyes and told him that there would come a time that he or his friends might ask a girl to send them a sexy picture. "I would not do that." Phew, "not my kid" my little voice said. Reality spoke louder and reminded me that kids are doing it, so for some it is "yes my kid" and it could be my kid. No resting on false laurels. "Ben, here is what you don't understand. You might be tempted and think it's fun. A girl might agree and think it's fun. If she is under 18 years old, it is illegal, it is called child pornography, and if you get on the wrong side of it, if could affect the rest of your life. Instead of focusing on high school, college and a future career, you will be dealing with police, court and consequences. Don't ask for a picture. Ever. If a girl ever sends you an unsolicited picture, come to me immediately. If a friend shares a picture he has received, come to me right away. Do not forward it to anyone."
Onto my younger girl. I explained that as she gets older she might be asked to send these kinds of pictures. Friends might do it and think it's cool and she will want to fit in and follow the leader. I reminded her of the embarrassment the woman likely felt when Emily saw her picture and told her that once she sends something to even one person, it will be out in the world forever and can be seen by anyone. Even with someone you trust, relationships change, people borrow phones, if you give something away you have lost control. "If you aren't sure what to say to your friends or a boy, come to me and we will figure out what you can say." Peer pressure in a variety of forms is coming our way so I best start giving this serious thought. I'm hoping I have some time before we circle back on this needed language.
In high school I suffered a pretty huge doozy dose of embarrassment. I wrote a note to a boy I had recently hung out with. I don't remember what it said but knowing my late blooming self and what was not going on in my life at that time (anything racy), it had to be at most, PG-13. That day after school I found a copy of my note on my car windshield. Puzzled I looked around and saw my note on every single windshield in the lot. No joke. I am sweating now, 20+ years later at the memory. All we had was paper and pen in the 90s and it was enough to cause shame. I am so thankful my childhood and college days were pre-tech. Today's equivalent of an innocuous note being passed around is one that could leave devastating damage for life.
I have no opinion on consenting adults sexting, taking nude or semi-nude pictures or making similar videos. I do think it foolish, with ample examples of these very private pictures and videos going out en mass, to think anyone is safe. Open the paper this week and you will find details of a court trial regarding a "private" sex video on Gawker. A few weeks ago a teacher resigned after students saw "private" pictures on her phone and forwarded them. Anything you keep on your phone, in a camera roll that toddlers know how to access, is not private.
This is not a one and done discussion. We will be revisiting this as my son gets a smartphone (yes, I have kept him as a luddite, and he is managing just fine, albeit with a healthy dose of bitterness) as each year passes and my children mature, engage in social media and technology advances. I'm hoping that by taking advantage of the surprising dinner time confession, that future conversations will be easy to start if not easy to get through.
"Well that was a deep conversation about child pornography. I was hungry but now I'm not."
It's not always easy to agree with my tween boy, but boy did I agree with that.