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Experts: Don’t blame the victims of youth ‘selfies’

It’s a mistake to blame young people who take sexually explicit photos or videos of themselves when those images end up being redistributed over the Internet, according to experts who gathered in London this week to discuss a new study by the U.K.-based Internet Watch Foundation (IWF).

It’s also a mistake to assume that the images, sometimes referred to as “selfies,” were taken voluntarily by the children who appear in them.

Researchers analyzed sexually explicit pictures taken and supposedly shared by young people, and found that 89.9 percent of the images had been “harvested” from their original upload location and posted to other public sites. Moreover, 100 percent of the images the IWF analyzed depicting children 15 and younger were harvested and posted somewhere else.

The IWF study, which was conducted late last year and funded by Microsoft, analyzed 3,803 photos and videos that were believed to be of children and youth ranging from infants to 20 years old.

“What the IWF went to seek and what they found are quite different,” said Tink Palmer, Chief Executive Officer of the Marie Collins Foundation and moderator of a panel discussion about the emotional and behavioral aspects of producing such images. “We need to focus on definitions and understand that every picture tells a story about what’s happening to the children.”

Microsoft funded the IWF to repeat and expand similar research done three years ago. IWF’s 2012 study found that of the 12,000-plus images taken and shared by youth and examined by the IWF, 88.15 percent had migrated to “parasite websites” where people sometimes paid to download them. As part of our child online protection strategy, Microsoft was interested in learning whether the 2012 trend was continuing, and whether there was more to be gleaned regarding the content’s commercial availability.

What the IWF learned from the new study, however, was very different. The 2014 set of supposed selfies featured much younger children, thus making it all but impossible to refer to the images as “self-produced.” Indeed, experts agreed the latest content could be divided into three categories: (1) truly self-generated, (2) by-products of online “grooming,” and (3) results of outright coercion or “sextortion.”

“With the under 10 (year olds), we have to believe something coercive is going on,” said Professor Sonia Livingstone of the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics. “It’s just another way that an already at-risk group is being further victimized.”

IWF was unable to ascertain (nor was such a determination in scope) the category into which each image might fall. The latest results are shocking and disturbing because of the younger-aged children and the heightened explicit sexual nature of the acts. In 2012, not a single image included a child believed to be 13 or younger, IWF said.

The London event, co-hosted by IWF and Microsoft, featured a second panel where experts discussed guidance for parents and educators, as well as ongoing technological efforts. The group offered advice for parents about webcams and how they operate, noting they’re no longer “a device that balances on top of a computer monitor.” They also called out simple messages for children, including “privates are private” and “speak up and tell someone” if something or someone makes them uncomfortable online or elsewhere. The event brought together 100 policymakers, child safety advocates, technology industry representatives and others to discuss the findings and to begin to chart a way forward.

All agreed the research indicated that different analyses and potential mitigation paths were required for the images involving older children versus those featuring children under 13. IWF agreed. “It is indisputable that coercion of young people to produce and/or share sexual content online must be referred to as a form of child sexual abuse,” said Sarah Smith, IWF’s lead researcher on the project. The content produced by the older age groups, meanwhile, could be regarded as more traditional “sexting.”

For our part, Microsoft will seek to create and deploy appropriate technology to help address the issue. In fact, as part of the U.K. government’s #WePROTECT Children Online initiative, Microsoft is leading a technology project about self-generated indecent images among youth. In addition, we will continue to raise awareness, help educate the public, and continue to partner with organizations like the IWF to ensure strategies and proposed “solutions” are research-based. Microsoft has agreed to again sponsor similar research by the IWF this year.

To read Part 1 of this two-part blog, which focuses on the study results and some Microsoft suggested guidance for parents, click here. To learn more about staying safer online generally, see this website.

 

 

 

 

Part 1: New data on youth “nudes” show disturbing trend

Young people around the globe are taking and sharing nude photos and videos of themselves, and the phenomenon appears to be occurring among younger and younger age groups, according to results from a new study sponsored by Microsoft.

Data released today by the UK-based Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) show 17.5 percent of the more than 3,800 sexually explicit photos and videos analyzed by IWF late last year were produced by young people believed to be under the age of 15. Meanwhile, 7.5 percent, or 286 images, were assessed as featuring children 10 or younger.

Even more startling is the severity of the content. The majority (72.4 percent) of the images depicting individuals believed to be 16-20 years old was classified as “Category C,”[1] with 27.6 percent deemed “Category B or A.” In sharp contrast, 46.9 percent of the images analyzed as featuring children 15 and under constituted Category A and B.

Print“The findings tell a distinctively different story from the research conducted in 2012,” said IWF Chief Executive Officer Susie Hargreaves. “However, our message around the ease at which content can be ‘lost’ online remains the same. Ninety percent of the imagery had been taken from its original upload location and copied to somewhere else. Whilst the 2012 study provided valuable insight into the increasing accessibility of sexual content depicting young people, this research reveals younger children and in some cases more explicit sexual behavior than we previously saw.”

Indeed, 85.9 percent of the images and videos assessed as depicting youth under 15 were taken via webcam captures from a personal computer or laptop. Just 8.5 percent were taken with a mobile phone, challenging the belief that the majority of “sexting” photos are captured via cell phone. IWF reported that, among this age group, 1.8 percent of the images were shot with a traditional digital camera.

I first learned of IWF’s work analyzing “indecent self-generated imagery among youth” some 18 months ago when Microsoft was refreshing its child online protection strategy. As noted, IWF had conducted a similar study in 2012 when it reviewed more than 12,000 nude images and videos taken and shared by youth. Those results showed that 88.15 percent of the content had migrated to so-called “parasite websites” where people downloaded the images, sometimes for a fee, and in all instances probably unbeknownst to the original explicit selfie-taker. IWF stresses there was “not a single instance” three years ago where a child was assessed as being 13 years of age or younger.

We approached IWF to see if the research had been repeated or was set to be re-run. An opportunity for collaboration emerged and the current research’s photos and images were analyzed over September, October and November 2014. We asked, in particular, that IWF examine the commercial aspects of the data given the 2012 results. A piece of “good news” from the current study is that only 1.7 percent of the 2014 data-set was assessed as being “commercially available.”

Parents who may be aware of this pattern of youth behavior are often confused by it. Others are hard-pressed to believe their kids would take part. To get some perspective, we’ve produced a new factsheet and offer some general guidance:

  • Talk to kids. Ask what they do online—favorite sites, games and activities. Be inquisitive, not judgmental. Let what’s learned serve as a basis for “house rules” on technology and web use.
  • Get help from technology. Family safety settings can help block harmful content, limit information-sharing and manage website access. Tell your children if you use these features and explain they’re intended to help keep them safe.
  • Discuss sexting—even if it’s uncomfortable. Start conversations early, and talk about peer pressure to sext. Listen for signs of coercion. Discuss risks and keep perspective.

To launch the research, Microsoft and IWF are co-hosting an event today at our London offices. “Youth selfies: The real picture – New insights and a way forward,” is bringing together parents, educators, policymakers and others to hear the data and discuss possible tools and resources. In Part 2 of this two-part blog, I’ll recap the event, perspectives shared and advice given. Meantime, to learn more about online safety generally, please visit this website.

[1] IWF’s category classifications are set out in the UK Sentencing Council’s Sexual Offences Definitive Guideline. Category C is defined as no sexual activity, but a prominent focus on the naked genitalia of the individuals shown. Category B includes sexual activity shy of any actual sex act, while Category A includes sex acts and other highly graphic sexual displays.

Safer Internet Day 2015: This year, “Do 1 (More) Thing” to stay safer online

February 10th, 2015 No comments

One year ago today, Microsoft asked people across the globe to #Do1Thing to stay safer and more secure online by taking what may have been a first step toward safeguarding their digital lifestyles. Today, on Safer Internet Day 2015, we want everyone to add to last year’s pledges and #Do1MoreThing to become cyber savvy. In addition, we’re launching new interactive resources for young people on the Microsoft YouthSpark Hub to further encourage safer online habits and practices.

Our goal is to help educate, engage and inspire people to better protect themselves and others online –all rooted firmly in the spirit of the Safer Internet Day 2015 theme: “Let’s create a better Internet together.” The hope is that each person’s one (more) thing will become a long-lasting best practice that will be shared with others and, in turn, lead to an ever-increasing number of safer online behaviors. Research shows that such effects can help create safer online experiences for every individual and a more secure online ecosystem for all.

privacy_IconLast year, some of the most popular “1 Thing” pledges included positive practices such as always using a four-digit PIN (personal identification number) to lock mobile devices; promises to convert to and use “strong” passwords for all devices and accounts and trying to refrain from constant phone-checking and instead “be present” in personal interactions. This year, visitors to the new online safety section of the Microsoft YouthSpark Hub may be further inspired by other online safety tips and ideas as well. One of my favorite parts of the new website is the opening section, designed to pull young people into the site, calling on them to: “Be awesome in real life and online.” From there, youth can explore comic strips, respond to polls and quizzes, and learn interesting facts and figures.

In addition, Microsoft is proud to again help sponsor the official U.S. Safer Internet Day 2015 event being held today in California. Managed by ConnectSafely.org, “Safer Internet Day 2015: Actions & Activism Toward a Better Net and World” is bringing together youth leaders, educators, policymakers, parents, Internet safety experts and representatives from the technology industry to focus not just on problems, but also on solutions for building a safer and better Internet.

When asked about this year’s theme, Larry Magid, co-director of ConnectSafely.org said Safer Internet Day’s “Let’s create a better Internet together” theme “reminds us that online and mobile safety are much more than just the absence of danger, but the presence of positive actions to improve not just the Internet but the world at large. It’s also a recognition that we’re in this together. Everyone— kids, parents, young adults, seniors, corporations, organizations and governments—has a stake and a role to play in making the Internet an even better tool for empowering the world’s citizens.”

Building on its near 20-year history in online safety, Microsoft remains committed to doing its part to help grow and shape a better and safer Internet for youth and, indeed, everyone.

For more information about staying safer and more secure online, I invite you to visit this site.