Digital abuse forum tackles sexting
Seventy-one percent of teens consider rumor-spreading on cell phones and social networking sites to be a serious problem, according to a 2007 national survey conducted by Teen Research Unlimited.
This was among the topics discussed by more than 400 students, parents and others in a digital abuse forum titled "Hit Me on My Cell: It's Time to Talk," at Saxe Middle School in New Canaan on Thursday evening.
Hosted by former "NBC Nightly News" weekend anchor John Seigenthaler, the event, which featured Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, aimed to educate Fairfield County families about cyber-bullying -- a digital form of harassment that Seigenthaler said has run rampant nationwide.
Weston Police Sgt. Matt Brodacki said technology has exacerbated the number and array of harassment incidents suffered by middle and high school students across the state. The Internet and social networking Web sites such as Facebook, along with cameras, video cameras and cell phones, enable children to maintain constant contact with each other during every hour of the day, he said.
Messages, photos and videos that teens and younger children are sharing every day can literally spread across the world in an instant, he said.
"This stuff does happen a lot in Connecticut ... especially in Fairfield County," Brodacki said.
Cyber-bullying refers to any type of harassing activity carried out on digital technologies such as cell phones and computers.
"Sexting," a term for the electronic exchange of sexually explicit text, images or videos, is one form of cyber-bullying that has lead to at least two teen suicides in the U.S.
"The kids are getting these sexts every day," said Kari Pesavento, director of Children's Connection, a Human Services Council program that educates teens about sexting and other forms of cyber-bullying. "They just don't get it. They're getting these messages every day, they're forwarding them, they're saving them, and they're not realizing [that] if they have three or more of these images on their phones, it's a felony."
Teens and tweens who send sexts, she said, often do not realize how quickly those messages can spread around the school, community and beyond with the ease of the internet and social networking Web sites like Facebook.
"It's small towns [like Darien] where it happens the most and it's talked about the least," Pesavento said.
Debbie Fryer, coordinator of PeaceWorks, a Domestic Violence Crisis Center program that educates pre-K to 12th-grade youths across the county about how to develop healthy relationships, says that many youngsters cannot discern a healthy relationship from an abusive one.
"In every school we go into, there are students who are [being cyber-bullied into] sexting," she said.
According to PeaceWorks Director Susan Delaney, it's all about power and control.
"If someone has pictures of you that you don't want spread around, it's really easy for them to say ... try and break up with me and you're going to see this picture around the world."
The government officials, law enforcers, school representatives, parents and teens who spoke from the stage or from the audience on Thursday night agreed on the problems, but together, they struggled to pin point a viable solution.
According to New Canaan High School Principal Tony Pavia, nothing is more effective in curbing undesirable behaviors like cyber-bullying than creating a community-wide social stigma attached to that very behavior.
"I really believe we have to work hard to create the consensus and build the consensus within [teen] communities...that this is just not acceptable," he said, adding, "Let's face it--one of the roles of the teenager is to push limits on things, and I would say [that] today they have more ability to push limits on things ... . Now there's this fast area of cyber-space, they have their own room, there's multiple media [outlets] in the house ... . Ultimately what it comes down to is that teenagers are alone certain hours of the day and they have to make decisions alone."