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Digital Guardians: Can Tech Solve the Problems It Creates?

Putting cameras on cell phones has been as world-changing as putting a man on the moon. After all, millions of young people have sabotaged themselves by sharing nude photos. Fortunately, a new app helps combat this problem. So parents and youth workers can relax, right?

Problems…and Potential Solutions

This generation has one main request: send nudes. Last week a youth worker friend called to ask my advice about handling the scandal in his church. A group of teen girls convinced a guy to send them a nude picture of himself. It ended up being passed around school. The guy got suspended, but nothing happened to the girls. Everyone’s talking about it.

I’ve had to devote several chapters to this issue in my upcoming book The Teen’s Guide to Social Media…and Mobile Devices. This type of situation happens all the time, unfortunately. And sadly, few parents are having conversations with their kids about it.

For more than a decade—since the advent of camera phones—teens have been sending racy photos of themselves to friends (who then share them with their friends, who then share them with their friends, who…). At first, racy, inappropriate, or outright naked photos were limited to text messages known as “sexts,” but in our mobile-dominated world, teenagers now have access to apps that enable, enhance, and even encourage this risky behavior.

An obvious culprit is Snapchat. This highly popular app initially promised users that their private messages (of their privates) would “disappear forever”…but do they really? Snapchat has impacted many young lives…often in very negative ways.

But there’s also Instagram. Yeah, I know, Instagram’s terms don’t allow for “violent, nude, partially nude, discriminatory, unlawful, infringing, hateful, pornographic, or sexually suggestive photos,” but many users are willing to blur the line. (Outrage ensued when gymnast McKayla Maroney recently posted a racy video.) And now Instagram’s Direct allows consensual users to share plenty of nude images.

We know the costs when teenagers share racy or nude images of themselves. With the click of a button, futures can be jeopardized and young lives destroyed. It’s a terribly difficult problem for adults to solve…partly because some adults haven’t figured out that sending racy pics is a bad idea. (I’m looking at you, Anthony Weiner.)

But a new app promises to help parents detect when teenagers take or receive explicit images. Gallery Guardian uses specialized algorithms to spot potential nudity on kids’ devices and notifies parents via a message to their own smartphone.

So, can Mom and Dad now “outsource” their kids’ digital safety to an app? Not likely. After testing the software, a BBC journalist spoke with the app’s creators to discuss its shortcomings. Not only did the app return false positives here and there, it also allowed a few explicit pictures to slip through. Despite Gallery Guardian’s current hiccups, the minds behind the app say it’s continually improving and will only get better with use. Gallery Guardian may be worth looking into…even though Teen Vogue thinks it’s an invasion of privacy.

The Best Protection

Mom and Dad, if you’re looking for the best way to help your teenagers avoid the pain associated with taking and sending nude or racy pics…look in the mirror. Yep, your jobs are quite secure! Let’s face it: A bankrupt person typically can’t help another poor person, nor can a sick person heal another diseased individual. So it’s no surprise that technology can’t solve problems it (inadvertently) creates. Filters can’t and never will block everything.

The good news? You’re better than any app in the world! Helping teenagers sidestep digital regrets doesn’t require an advanced degree in computer science; it just takes intentionality. Here are a few tips:

  1. Have ongoing conversations about healthy use of mobile devices. Because technology is a constant part of teenagers’ lives, make sure they hear a consistent voice on the subject, namely yours. Please don’t think “one talk” will eradicate all present and future temptations. Broach the subject regularly, with well-crafted questions. If you have a “digital contract” with your teenager (like this one), it should include something about sending and receiving inappropriate photos. Do a regular checkup with your teenager, using the contract as the basis for your conversation.
  2. Seize every teachable moment to help teenagers construct a game plan. You don’t have to look very far (or very often) to find the sting that accompanies irresponsible use of smartphones. Sadly, almost every school or neighborhood has a story. When this issue rears its ugly head, use the opportunity to help your teenagers learn a valuable lesson at someone else’s expense. Again, ask questions, but focus on “What would you have done in that situation?” to help kids develop a strategy before they need one.
  3. Teach teenagers to manage their mobile habits. This is where the rubber meets the road. At some point, knowledge must be applied if there’s any hope of avoiding digital pitfalls. Yes, have conversations about what to do and not do, but lead by example, as well. The benefits of Show and Tell extend far beyond the kindergarten classroom.

Parents and youth workers should certainly take advantage of every digital tool to help us lead teenagers. But we must realize we’re still the greatest guardians…in the real world and the digital world.

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Digital Guardians: Can Tech Solve the...

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