Sexual Harassment and Social Media

A couple of days ago I saw a quite disturbing news story about a paedophilic postman from Cornwall on the BBC. A 28-year old used primarily applications of the New Media to groom hundreds of underage victims. By using various fake identities on social networking sites like Facebook, he approached and befriended youngsters and children – pretending he would be a teenage boy or girl of their age. After establishing a relationship, he started to harass them sexually. He admitted 27 charges of “inciting sexual activity, grooming and possessing and distributing indecent images” (BBC, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/cornwall/8652124.stm, 30/05/2010). He used several computers simultaneously to lead his digital “second life”. See a brief news clip from sky-news here:

The whole issue highlights another very important dimension of the discourse on cyber-bullying/-criminality/-violence: The directed misuse of contemporary technology for sexual harassment and (psychological as well as physical) abuse of minors. It also shows once more to what extent an individual can “live” more than one self-created identity in cyberspace; this “freedom” proves to be a janus-faced one, as advantages in terms of self-determination and digital self-fulfilmet coexist with irrefutable dangers and threats. Furthermore, the (still wide) gap between generations is clearly perceptible, too. Many parents did not know what their children were doing online and who they were engaging with.

Sexual harassment in the Internet is nothing new – various cases occurred during the last years (Weller, http://www.uiowa.edu/~cyberlaw/cls06/papers/bwfinfin.htm 30/05/2010). The concrete manifestations of this behaviour range from e.g. constantly e-mailing, over cyber-stalking to actual physical assaults. In some cases culprits used the web to search and contact possible victims , before approaching and assaulting them offline. Pedophiliacs often establish a bond of trust to children before they attempt to seduce them (Deirmenjian, http://www.hawaii.edu/hivandaids/Pedophilia_on_the_Internet.pdf 30/05/2010) – just like the postman from Cornwall did.

Many causes for and forms of sexual harassment exist. For instance, various cases among adults took place at work (between employers/employees). Though the majority of such activities come from men, the number of victims seems to increase on both sides (Wall Street Journal, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704117304575137881438719028.html 30/05/2010), at least in the USA. Other incidents resulted from failed relationships. There is a wide range of psychological reasons for such dangerous behaviour. Nevertheless, online paedophilia and child abuse are extraordinary repulsive delicts.

There are lot of heated discussions on negative media effects of violent/sexual content on young people; it is undoubtedly a crucial task to debate and examine the actual form and impact of the many media-transported influences on recipients of all age. However, examples like this show to what extent the World Wide Web can entail concrete threats to an individuals safety, especially concerning children.  The Internet provides a lot of possibilities to communicate and engage with other people – but proper education and information about certain downsides of these benefits is needed. These considerations forces the critical observer to face some difficult questions, which have to deal with e.g. privacy, identity-controll, and media capacity: How can I be sure the person I contact is really the one he/she supposes to be? Where should be the legal limits to the creation of online effigies/identities? How can young people be effectively warned about the existing threats? What can the  providers of social networking sites do – without further cutting down an user’s privacy rights? What would appropriate safety measures look like? Approaching answers is crucial but also very difficult: hasty measures could lead to certain disadvantages, though not reacting to such incidents cannot be an option. Thus, current discourses on the subject should focus and revise contemporary concepts of preparation and protection.

List of References

BBC, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/cornwall/8652124.stm,  (30/05/2010)

Deirmenjian, http://www.hawaii.edu/hivandaids/Pedophilia_on_the_Internet.pdf  (30/05/2010)

Sky News, youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q1ermaR1emM (30/05/2010)

Wall Street Journal, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704117304575137881438719028.html  (30/05/2010)

Weller, http://www.uiowa.edu/~cyberlaw/cls06/papers/bwfinfin.htm  (30/05/2010)

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One Comment

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  1. Issues of sex and the traditional media have been prevalent and established before the advent of new media. Just as we were welcoming developments in ICT, we failed to recognize its down side – perhaps a pro-active attitude by foreseeing such a situation may have made a difference. And again, it may not have. Justifiably, no one could predict its direction when the wave of new media began. It caught like wild fire, and to date it is still spreading.
    What can be done now? Resently, they were debates about Facebook adding a ‘panic’ button to its sites for situations such as mentioned above. However, these minors or teenagers do not even usually perceive that they are in any danger until it is too late.
    My suggestion would be that awareness be raised in schools. Make it a sort of extra-curricular activity with the student. has to be carefully carried out so that children don’t begin to feel paranoid. it’s a very problematic suggestion i know.. but something really has to be done. Perhaps starting from the home.

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