Would You Tell Another Parent About Their Child's Questionable Photo?
Picture this: You are looking at a photograph on an iPhone screen. It is a picture with dark lighting, three young teens (around 14) in a bed, squished together, the one in the middle has a blanket up to their neck smiling at the camera.
What image did that description conjure for you? Did you notice I left out the gender of the bunk mates? What did you automatically imagine? Think about how your reaction might be different based on the configuration -- boy in middle with two girls or girl in middle between two boys, or all of one gender. Do you feel yourself reacting differently to those images? I did. If you saw it on your kid's computer and it involved their classmate would you inform the parent?
The photo in question involved two girls, aged 13 and 14, and also a 12 year old boy who was sandwiched in the middle. It was taken at the home of my daughter's classmate during the party and posted online. My daughter was not at the party. She happened to be at a restaurant with a bunch of girls and a couple of parents when the photo came up on most of their phones. According to a parent who was at the table, immediately the girls reaction was, "Uh, oh. What's happening there?"
When I arrived to pick up my daughter, the photo was still being talked about by the girls and a couple of parents so I asked to see it. I must say it was one of those times as a parent where you kind of freeze with indecision. It was not cut and dry. The photo looked "kind of innocent," but only because the faces looked young -- too young to do anything in that bed...right? Clearly, the girls felt something was questionable in their friend's photo. It was just shy of very inappropriate in my opinion because I was assuming all hands were above deck -- or the blanket in this case.
There was something else though: The genders involved in the photo. That was a big piece for me. I have to admit seeing the boy in the middle made me a hell of a lot less uncomfortable than seeing a girl (read: one of my daughters) flanked by two boys in the bed. I knew what people would say if it were a girl in the middle of that bed. Here I was, thinking the same thing. Immediately, I realized my own sexist observation of the photo. Now, this was a boy. Just recently several mom's of the boys in the class had mentioned their discomfort about the aggressiveness of the girls in the grade. I knew some of them would be extremely unhappy if this were their son. Further, should the gender configuration really factor into appropriateness?
I understood where these moms were coming from since I had heard several of the girls were crushing on various boys in the grade and had orchestrated a number of lunches and movie nights so they could double date. Some of the girls have some serious interest in boys these days. I also knew from the grapevine several kids in the grade have started "dating" and making out. Further, the text under the photo suggested the boy in the pic would not be happy it was posted; in fact, someone remarked "M..is going to be pissed at you for posting that." That's what made me decide to make the phone call. It seemed he might not even know about the photo.
So, on second glance the photo and the text stopped looking so innocent. I didn't think it was particularly incendiary, but again I imagined my own daughter in the bed sandwich I thought I would want to know about it. I would want it taken down from public view. This is small stuff compared to posting naked pics, but these kids were not using good judgement here and what I might think is benign, another parent might think shocking.
I also know the mom hosting this gathering for her daughter. We've always had a very good rapport. I felt I should give her a heads up about the photo since the party was at her home. Another parent who knew the boy's mom decided to call her as well. I felt I would rather be informed than kept in the dark. I know from personal experience with my older daughter and her friends how things can be misconstrued from photos and chats on FaceBook. These younger kids are using Life Stream and many of parents aren't even aware their kid's have accounts.
The girl's mother who hosted the party and I ended up having a 48-hour email exchange that progressed from her daughter's flat out denial of the incident -- which her mother believed -- to a guilty, angry admission when I forwarded a screen shot someone had taken of the exchange. I hadn't planned to send it until she pressed me for more details, and it seemed she might want to shoot this messenger. This was another lesson: Just because you delete it doesn't mean it's gone. Several of the kids had saved the photo. It had her screen name on it with her words in the chat exchange below it. Her mother was in shock that her daughter and the other kids in the photo lied and had deleted the picture.
Interestingly, technology wasn't completely bad in this instance: Without the screen shot, this would have become a wicked "he said, she said" without any way to resolve the issue. I wasn't shocked they lied to their parents. They were probably terrified and wanted to save their hides. Parental threats of year long groundings scared the truth right out of the kids.
Here's the part where it got crazy. The boy's mom called me -- blaming everyone under the sun for the photo. I was somewhat prepared for her call since I knew someone else had notified her. She had heard about it from another mom in the class and flipped out telling the woman she would no longer be her friend. The phone call was to blame my daughter because the three kids in question had decided to lie again and say my daughter posted a photo on FaceBook. Again, the screen shot of the photo told the tale and she apologized. Finally, I explained -- very firmly -- to this mother that she needed to stop trying to shoot the messenger. Her son lied and so did the other girls. They used poor judgement. That's it. They probably were goofing around, but it also seemed her son would not be comfortable with the photo posted based on the text below. No one was blaming her son. It seemed to me that letting her know about it was an attempt to protect him.
I also explained the kids in the grade were talking about the photo and, from experience, I thought it might be a good idea to look into what happened. Given all the talk about girls and aggressiveness, I also asked her, "If it were my daughter in between two boys, how would you look at the photo?" Her response? Silence.
It's hard to watch our kids morph out little leaguers and girl scouts into young men and women. It seems to happen over night. The boys get aggressive... or is it the girls? I think we parents are just distracting ourselves with those arguments. I also think we need to watch ourselves and our double standards more carefully. Our kids are growing up and are going to be interested in dating, kissing, and yes, eventually, sex. There's nothing wrong with any of it in due time, with whomever they choose. I just hope to teach my kids, both my daughters and my son, to use better judgement in how they share their relationships now while the photos are just starting to push that envelope, and before -- I shudder while typing this -- sexting.
This incident had the potential to be a perfect "teaching moment." Benign enough that it won't have lasting consequences, but I hoped, at least for my children, it would resonate enough that they would think twice about what they put out into the world when I'm not looking. It also woke me up to my own biases about they way I look at boys and girls behavior. I grew up the only girl with five older brothers. It really bothered me that I analyzed the gender in the photo before making a judgment call. I hope my kids and I learned from this. As for the other parents, I'm not sure what -- if any -- impact this incident had on them.
Amazingly, the three kids in question were back on Life Stream, instant messaging the same day of the incident announcing, "We're grounded and not supposed to be on here." They openly discussed the photo and why anyone would tell on them. Someone sent me a screen shot of one of them calling me a bitch. Once again their parents had no idea. I just happen to play "Stalker Mom" on my kids computers -- with their knowledge and they don't seem to mind. Does it mean my kids are impervious to scandal or bad judgement calls? Does it mean I know every single thing they do? No, but at least I know a little something about what's going on in my kids' lives. Hopefully, having some understanding of social media will allow me to help them navigate these situations.
In the end, these parents calmed down and decided the photo was nothing to worry about according to their final emails. I must say the girl's mom who hosted the event was very appreciative of the information and called to make sure there was no fallout over this between our daughters (none, thank goodness). At the end of our conversation, she lamented the old days, "When we were thirteen and could make mistakes, learn from them and then grow up, but with no evidence, except in memories."
I miss those days too...I'm wondering though, did those days ever really exist?