Facebook, camera phones, kids and online bullies

As more than 300 teenagers and pre-teens filed into the St. Ignatius auditorium, most did not notice the man videotaping them with a Blackberry. Nor did they notice the webcam pointed directly at them. The few students who did register the cameras did not think too much about it.

There was really no reason for the kids to feel comfortable about the man videotaping them. He is not a teacher or on staff at the school, nor is he a parent of a student. Until the moment he starts talking to this group, he is really nothing more than a stranger.

The man turns out to be Micho Schumann, an Internet security expert at KPMG, who explains that smart phones, digital cameras, webcams, combined with the Internet have made the world much less private and that is not always a good thing.

Simply spending the day sunbathing at the beach, a passerby can easily photograph them and put it on the Internet. Or a person at a party can use a camera phone to video a teenager acting silly or drinking while underage and upload it to Facebook or another social networking site. Those photos or videos may very well come back to haunt them.

A case in point is a video taken during the Batabano festivities and uploaded to YouTube last year. The YouTube video featured underage teenage girls simulating sexual intercourse with adult men in George Town, causing a public outcry.

While the video of the underage girls on YouTube was taken down, it only takes a few minutes being on a website for it to be downloaded a hundred times and uploaded onto other websites. Once videos are in that many hands, it is virtually impossible to get all of them off the Internet.

While it is unknown what the consequences to the teenage girls featured on YouTube, videos like this can be used to taunt other kids.

For instance, a video of a chubby 15-year-old boy in Quebec enacting a Star Wars Jedi fight with a light sabre was uploaded to the Internet by another student without the boy’s knowledge or permission. After it was uploaded, the teenager was taunted and ridiculed at school to the point that he dropped out and finished his term in a children’s psychiatric ward. The boy’s parents would later sue the parents of some of the kids that bullied him.

To date, the video called the “Star Wars Kid” can still be found on YouTube and has been viewed nearly 15 million times over three years and reportedly downloaded millions of times on other file sharing websites.

“You got to be aware that wherever you go, whether it is at the beach, whether it is a party or at school, people can take pictures of you with a webcam connection that could be fed directly to YouTube,” says Schumann. “So if you said something you regret, it is already on YouTube and a hundred people have already seen it.”

Breeding grounds for online bullies
Today, social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, Hi-5 and Eharmony have become breeding grounds for online bullies, predators and identity thieves.

It is common practice for online predators to adopt aliases using different ages, genders, names and locations to appeal to children and teenagers online. They frequently pose as friends or a “friend of a friend”, but they could be anyone. Predators frequently copy pictures of real young people from social or photo album websites and post them on their alias profile to make them look like the kid they are pretending to be.

Once accepted as a ‘friend’, the online predator can review personal information posted on the child’s profile page. And as a ‘friend’, the predator will have the means to interact with the child and nurture a relationship. This can be particularly dangerous with teenagers, who think an online friendship is leading into a romantic relationship.

With the teenager’s guard down, the predator will coax the young person into instant messaging, chat rooms, webcam and sending sexually explicit photos or videos of themselves.

Recently, one high school boy in Wisconsin set up female aliases on Facebook. He then tricked 31 male classmates into sending naked photos of themselves and then blackmailed several boys for sexual favours after he threatened to post them on the Internet.

Wild West chat room
“Chat rooms are like the Wild West of the Internet. You don’t know where they live. You don’t know what they look like. They could be anybody,” says Schuman.

Predators also use chat rooms to meet children and underage teenagers.

To demonstrate just how common this has become, Schumann recently created a user ID “Gurly_15” suggesting a teenage girl of 15 and entered a chat room.

He didn’t initiate any chat conversations, but other users could see his “Gurly_15” user ID was present.

“Within 30 seconds of logging on to the chat room an 18-year-old guy, or so he says, invited me to a private chat,” says Schumann.

Online predators turn up at homes
Even if the child does not give an address or post it online, predators will often use information they find from photos and profiles to figure out where the child lives.

Living in Cayman should not make parents or children think that a predator or bully will not come and find them.

Undesirable Internet users have been known to travel great geographic distances to stalk just the right victim, and have an elaborate abduction ploy worked out to sidetrack the parents and authorities, explains Schumann.

While predators and bullies can lead a transient existence, there are many who have good-paying, white-collar jobs and a dependable car, giving the means to stalk underage victims at close range.

Consider NBC’s news series “To catch a predator” where dozens of men who met what they thought were underage teenagers in online chat rooms and arranged to meet them at their home. Many of the men who showed up had solid jobs like doctors, lawyers, scientists and computer programmers.

The consequences of a video or photo on the Internet can continue to affect children as they go into adulthood. Searching backgrounds on Google has become a common tool to evaluate applicants for jobs or scholarships. If a Google search turns up silly or illegal behaviour as a teenager on the Internet, that young person could have his application denied and have no idea why, says Schumann.