It began as an innocuous pre-teen crush, the kind that was commemorated in the past with long, hand-written letters, filled with stickers of hearts, sparkles and angst-filled poetry.
These days, the love notes are more succinct, sent in the form of a text, or expressed visually with intimate photographs.
For a 13-year-old girl, in her final year of elementary school, they were a private exchange between her and her first boyfriend.
A few months later, he had shared her photographs at school. She soon became the school “slut,” whispered about in the classroom, the subject of a post and comments from strangers on a gossip site.
Getting the photos back was impossible.
Sending naked or semi-naked photos of yourself – “sexting” – is common among teens and pre-teens in Canada.
“I wouldn’t do it,” says Chastity Gillis, a Grade 8 student at Garibaldi secondary in Maple Ridge, “but there are some people who do at school. It’s to get attention or they think it’s cool. I think some parents know, but most don’t.”
To date, there have been no published studies examining how many Canadian teens have used their cellphones to send or receive nude photos.
A recent U.S. study revealed one-third of teens had sent a ‘sext.’
The high-tech form of flirting is alarming both police and school administrators, who are struggling to find a way to stop it as victims get younger – in Maple Ridge, one girl was nine.
Ridge Meadows RCMP are investigating multiple cases where children have taken nude photos and sent them to individuals they have met online through social media websites. In some cases, the child was coerced into sending the images, while others exchanged photos with casual, online acquaintances.
Gillis, 14, lists a litany of sites she and friends use to communicate: KIK Messenger, SnapChat, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter.
She’s careful, however, about the photos she posts to the sites and wary of friend requests from strangers.
“I’m careful because of what happened to Amanda Todd,” she says.
“I don’t want that happening.”
Todd’s story is perhaps the most high-profile example of the consequences of sharing an intimate moment online with a stranger.
In Grade 7, Todd, who grew up in Maple Ridge and Coquitlam, “flashed” a boy while chatting with him online. The screen capture of that indiscretion was soon used to blackmail her into sending more photographs. When she refused, he shared the first photo with her classmates.
Unable to cope with almost two years of bullying online and at school, Todd took her own life last October, a month after she told her story to the world in a heart-breaking video posted on YouTube.
It’s since been viewed more than 22 million times.
Sexting at age nine
As an officer with the Ridge Meadows RCMP serious crimes unit, Cpl. Aaron Lloyd is surprised by the recent increase in complaints from parents and concerned residents who’ve stumbled upon revealing online posts.
Until a few years ago, the word “sexting” did not exist.
“What is surprising to us is the types of photographs and the age of those involved,” says Lloyd.
“We have very young people being directed to do very sexually explicit things and they are acting out those requests via a video message or photographs, sending them to people they don’t know. That’s alarming. It’s happening at such a young age.”
By young, Lloyd means girls and boys aged six, seven and eight. Sexting is no longer an activity restricted to curious pre-teens and teens.
A recent case involved a girl who was nine.
“Out of fear, we are seeing children doing more and more things,” says Lloyd.
Sharing a naked picture of a minor, even if she’s your girlfriend or he’s your boyfriend, is a criminal offense. It means you are distributing child pornography.
Though there have been few success with charging and prosecuting offenders, Lloyd notes most cases don’t result in criminal charges.
“At the end of the day, we have to try and determine who they are engaging in a conversation with,” he explains.
“It is often very difficult to put somebody at the other end of the computer.”
In fact, police rather not see a situation escalate to a criminal investigation.
In the past, parents saw the outside world as a threat. Today, it’s more likely the threat’s in your child’s bedroom, lurking behind a computer screen or smart phone.
“The Internet has opened it up to everybody across the world,” says Lloyd.
“It is easy for people to pose as somebody else.”
Once a photograph or video is shared, Lloyd admits there’s not much police can do. Parents can ask social networks to remove content, but it’s often an arduous process.
“At that point, it’s too late, your child has been exposed to a variety of things,” says Lloyd.
“That’s why we want to put the onus on parents and parenting. It’s up to parents to monitor their children. You would monitor who your children visit. You wouldn’t let them take off across town and let them run wild. You wouldn’t let them go on a road trip with strangers. So you should not let them have access to the Internet unsupervised.”
A parent of three teenagers, Cpl. Alanna Dunlop tried to keep up with most trends.
It was three years ago she’s began to hear whispers about the kinds of photos their classmates were sharing.
As a school liaison officer with Ridge Meadows RCMP, Dunlop pays close attention to what students are telling her. This year’s she’s learned about a few new website: Ask.fm, a site students say is rife with bullying, and theCHIVE, another place to anonymous post photos and video.
“I think we are the last to know as adults. They are existing in a world of their own.”
Dunlop and her team of youth resource officers have stepped up presentations about Internet safety in schools and are increasingly targeting students at the elementary level.
When Dunlop asks a classroom if they’ve heard about “sexting” or sharing nude photos with strangers online, most of their hands go up.
When she asks if their parents know, she gets responses from barely a handful.
“It’s a huge concern for us to get the parents to understand what their kids are doing online,” says Dunlop.
Even after three years of hammering home the messages in schools, Dunlop hasn’t seen much of a change.
“With the hands not going up in classes, I’m concerned,” she says.
Diane Sowden isn’t surprised.
As the executive director of Children of the Street Society, a Coquitlam-based non-profit that raises awareness about the sexual exploitation of children and youth, Sowden can’t keep up with the demand from schools asking her to deliver workshops.
The society’s latest campaign called “Just One Photo” features the story of a young girl who shared a private photo online with someone she trusted. Her tale highlights the increasing power new technology has in the distribution of potentially harmful content.
During the school year from April to October, Children of the Street delivered workshops on online safety to 894 students in Maple Ridge and 300 in Pitt Meadows.
Out of the 21 elementary school in the district, only seven were lucky enough to book Sowden’s team of youth presenters. There’s a four-month long waiting list for their workshops and they already booked for next year.
“We are not keeping up. The education tools are there. But to be honest, the funding isn’t there to support the demand,” says Sowden, whose organization operates without core funding from the province and must apply annually for grants.
Sowden is constantly updating workshops to tailor them to what kids are using today and delivering the workshops to much younger audience.
“This year for the first time we are going into elementary school – Grade 5 and Grade 4. Our experience is the parents don’t realize what their youth and children are able to get into,” says Sowden.
At one school, Sowden’s team heard about a drug dealer who was giving teenage girls crack cocaine as a reward for watching them make-out.
But most often, she hears about boys and girls who’ve shared intimate photos or video with someone who they’ve dated.
“Once it’s out there, they have absolutely no control,” says Sowden, noting one instance where the photos were found by a brother who thought it would be funny to share it with his friends.
“It’s not just the person you are sending it to, but who else has access to that.”
The three most common answers students give when asked if they talk to their parents about sexting are: my parents knows nothing about technology; my parents wouldn’t be comfortable talking about sexual exploitation; and the number one answer is – if I tell them, they will take away my phone or computer.
“So we are closing doors as parents, when it comes to having our youth talk about things,” says Sowden.
“The things is not to take away technology but teach them how to use it and how to supervise that technology use.”
• Sexual exploitation has been less visible in the streets but exploded online in recent years.
• 49 per cent of teens that post photos online report being contacted by a stranger.
• One in 10 youth gave personal information to stranger.
• One in five youth aged 10-17 years have been solicited sexually online.
• Seventy-five per cent of youth who’ve received an online sexual solicitation did not tell a parent.
• Over a five year period, child pornography related offences in Canada have increased over 900 per cent. Canada ranks No. 2 in the world for hosting child sexual images online.
RCMP recommend that parents monitor their children’s online behaviour:
• Have access to your children’s accounts. Their behaviour will be modified if they believe you are watching. This is not spying, it is parenting.
• Install Parental Monitoring software on your computer devices to help block inappropriate content.
• Ensure your child’s profile on any social media site is set to “private.” This will ensure only people who are “allowed” to see their posted photographs.
• Do not allow your child to have friends or contacts that they do not know personally. Most child internet predators will pose as females or males in their peer group in order to build rapport.
• Disable “Geotagging” on any camera or device used by your child to post photographs. Information contained in Geotagged photographs can aid an Internet predator in identifying your child’s home address and school.
• Discuss what photographs you will allow your child to post and monitor them. This not only pertains to the provocative nature of the photographs, but clothing and backgrounds in the photograph that could identify your child’s home address and school.
• Do not allow your child to use social media applications, like KIK, that do not have privacy or parental controls. Social media applications like KIK lack the transparency, regulation and controls needed to keep your children and teenagers safe.
(Photo Illustration by Colleen Flanagan)
• Cybertip.ca – to report online predators;
• Canadian Centre for Child Protection – for tips on cyber and smart phone safety.;
• Red Hood Project – a movement for online security for children and youth.