Grade 4 students at Bluenose Academy in Lunenburg, N.S., are learning how to stay safe online, and educators are explaining the dangers of sexting. In nearby Bridgewater, six teenage boys are scheduled to appear in court Wednesday on child pornography charges. (CBC)
In a world where sexting — digital flirting — can create devastating personal and and legal problems, Grade 4 students in Nova Scotia are learning how to stay safe online.
Like many teachers and school boards across Canada, educators at Bluenose Academy in Lunenburg are making online safety a priority.
Eva Purcell-MacIntyre, 14, an older student there, says it's a good idea. She's had many requests for nude images from boys in her community, and she's turned down every one.
"You definitely have to think about the future, and you have to think about the situation. If you are under peer pressure, take yourself away from that peer pressure. Assess and make sure you know the full consequences of what can happen if you sext," she says.
They were arrested after pictures of more than 20 teenage girls were allegedly shared in a Dropbox account without the girls' knowledge.
Lawyers for the boys and the prosecution appeared in court Wednesday and requested more time to review evidence and prepare. The case was put over until Oct. 19.
The sexting case sent shock waves through the town and nearby communities that dot the South Shore of the province.
"It made me feel terrible for the girls and it's a terrible thing to happen," says Miranda Dagley, 14, of Lunenburg. "It could happen to anyone in any situation."
Madison Greek, also 14, says she can see how it all starts. Many teenage girls feel the need to fit in.
"I think that this happens quite a lot in relationships, when two people are talking and flirting with each other and maybe one person is pressuring someone into sending those pictures or texts," she said.
Canadian studies say kids as young as nine have sent explicit images of themselves. And half of older high school students say they've sent or received an intimate image.
"I think this is all about adolescent behaviour in the brain," says Signy Arnason, associate executive director of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection in Winnipeg.
The national charity, funded by the federal government and corporate donors, works closely with child-exploitation units of police forces across the country to stop child victimization.
"They live in the here and now. They're thinking about what they're doing in the moment and sharing that and no, I don't think enough of them are sitting back contemplating, 'If I share this, oh what if we break up? If I share this, I have lost complete control of what ends up happening with it,'" Arnason adds.
What sometimes happens is criminal. In the last five years, dozens of teens have been arrested for sharing images without consent. And their victims are often left devastated, Arnason says.
The suicides of Canadian teens Rehtaeh Parsons and Amanda Todd, who were assaulted and exploited online, are examples of how extreme the outcomes can be. A sense of desperation is not uncommon, Arnason says.
"We've had about a dozen kids call in and say, 'If this doesn't stop, I'm contemplating ending my life.' So we know it's a very serious issue," she says
Arnason created NeedHelpNow.ca, which guides teenagers on the most important problem of getting online service providers to remove images.
The site has averaged 6,000 unique views a month since it was launched three years ago.
"When kids come in to us, what they want is, No. 1, they don't want their parents involved and they don't want the police involved. They want the content to come down. … 'I'm underage, I'm in the photo, I didn't consent to its posting.'"
Nova Scotia classes
In most cases, service providers move quickly to remove offending images, Arnason says. Sometimes police are called in, especially if the sharing involves extortion or threats.
But she says the focus should be on more education and on the fact that all sexting crimes are about lack of consent.
"The problem was we armed these kids with incredibly powerful devices … it's almost a recipe for disaster. So we're trying to play catch-up in and around how do we begin to manage and teach kids, especially when they start to enter into intimate relationships.