Sunday, April 19, 2009

Issues that make people passionate...

Over the last fifteen years since I have been a cyberlawyer and the last 12 years since I have been a voice in the kids online safety community there have been only a handful of issues that have moved everyone. The death of 13 yr old Christina Long at the hands of an Internet sexual predator 6 years ago, the suicide death of Meagan Meier after being tormented online at the hands of a middle-aged mother, Lori Drew 2-1/2 years ago, and sexting.

Jessie Logan was 18 when she took and shared a nude picture of herself with a boy she was seeing. He was 19. He shared the picture with a 16 year old girl who shared it with the world. When no one at her school would help her, and law enforcement turned a blindeye, Jessie appeared incognito on TV to share her story with other teens, warning them of the harassment and high costs of sharing nude pictures with others. Even then, the torment continued after after a schoolmate committed suicide for unrelated reasons, she hanged herself.

Her text messages had been deleted from her cell phone, when she tossed it into the center of her room before she died. No one knows what she had received before she died. She had just taken a shower and washed her hair and was spending the night with friends. It makes sense that the sudden change in mood had something to do with her constant tormentors.

But we'll never know.

When her mother, Cynthia, came out with Jessie's story and asked for tougher harassment laws and a lessening of penalties for young people voluntarily sharing their nude pics with other young people, instead of getting the sympathy she deserved for the loss of her only child, she receives torments of her own.

People post horrible things. And while the emails and posts are running 10 - 1 kind to mean, there are still too many mean messages.

Tina Meier received many mean messages too, following her going public about her daughter's tormentor. But Lori was very unsympathetic, so the messages were as much against a mother's horrible acts of targeting a vulnerable teen as for the Meiers.

But who is to blame in Jessie's case? A 19 year old boy she was seeing, a 16 year old girl who harassed her and a school and school resource officer who failed her? A legal system that wouldn't aid her in stopping the torment?

There is enormous sympathy for Jessie, and I am seeing a movement of young teens who are being more careful and helping spread the word about how much it hurts when you naked pic is circulated to everyone in town. Jessie wanted to help others avoid her pain and in death she will have a huge impact on helping others. The Jessie Challenge helps young people say "no" when asked for a pic, or say "no" when asked to pass it on, or say "enough" to this growing trend.

But there is even greater sympathy for boys and girls who are being charged as sex offenders, and if convicted of this serious felony, required to be a registered sex offender with all that entails. Boys are prosecuted more than girls are, for the same acts. People are angry about the inequity of that.

Even in her grief, Cynthia Logan is seeking equity for the kind of young people who harassed her daughter. She wants the penalities reduced when teens share their nude pics voluntarily with each other. She wants to make sure that teens are not charged as sex offenders, or required to register. She wants counseling, community service and public apologies when others are hurt. She wants an enhancement of the harassment laws when they use sexual exploitation as a weapon to hurt their victims, as well.

But more than anything else, she wants justice in her daughter's name. She wants to make sure that schools do their part when harassment takes place on campus during school hours. She wants achool resource officers to protect the students in their charge, even if they are 18-year-old seniors. They deserve protection as much as the sophmores, juniors, freshmen do. She wants apologies from the teens who made Jessie's life hell during the four months before her death. She wants kindness form the town in which she lives. She wants those who watch her on TV and read about her to understand her.

Many news outlets have mistakenly reported that I am her lawyer. I am not. I run the world's largest and oldest cybersafety charity. I am an unpaid volunteer, along with the rest of our all-volunteer charity staff. I happen to be a lawyer as well, but advise on policy and do not represent individuals. I am working with Cynthia to help raise awareness and find justice for Jessie and equity for other teens.

Those who post hateful messages attacking a grieving mother or blame Jessie for what her harassers did are missing the point. Unless we teach accountability and consequences to teens, far too many will do things they will regret. And when we, as teens did things we regretted we were lucky enough to have them contained in our small circles of friends, and communities. But the teens of today will find them everywhere. What you post online stays online - forever!

So, we need to balance all needs here:
1. The need for a balanced legal framework that punishes harassment at the right level, treats all actors equally, recognizes that the child exploitation laws should not apply to make stupid acts a felony sex offense;
2. The need for schools to be trained in how to handle cyberharassment and cyberbullying and be there to help when students are tormented and not make things worse;
3. The need to find help for students who are cyberharassed and cyberbullied and find themselves in the midst of hate campaigns, with people they can tak to, get help from and trust;
4. The need to teach parents that sexting and sexing ("sexing" is when any digital device is used, not only a cell phone) is far more common than they think and good kids are doing it, not only "those kids." And that parents have to stay informed, keep an eye on their kids and teach them about consequences and judgement;
5. The need for device manufacturers and service providers to help by creating awareness campaigns, abuse reporting buttons and taking action when their devices and services are used in cyberbullying and sexting campaigns.

Together we can address each of these, and if the people who are taking time to attack others or pass along misinformation and hype instead directed their time and efforts to helping, we'd be able to do so far faster and better than without them.

my 2 cents

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