#teensexting | #sexting | The Kids Are Sexting: How Anti-Helicopter Parent App Aims To Help

AUSTIN, TX — One of the tricky things about the internet is that despite the steps parents take to keep their children out of its darkest corners, they stumble into them without actively seeking out inappropriate content.

Already tethered to their cell phones and devices before the coronavirus pandemic distanced them from their friends, adolescents and teens turned even more to the internet for entertainment and companionship.

And — bam — while they’re looking at a seemingly innocuous website, they’re assaulted with hard-core pornography, leaving bewildered parents to question where the software to block inappropriate content went haywire, says Sean Clifford, 38, an Austin tech executive and father of four.

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Apps have long existed to block inappropriate images and adult entertainment websites, which are among the most well trafficked in the world, eclipsing sites such as Netflix, Amazon and Reddit.

But that doesn’t really solve the problem, Clifford says, because algorithms are geared to take an all-or-nothing approach. Clifford says the app developed by Canopy, where he is the chief executive, uses the power of artificial intelligence and is more discerning.

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“Kids are being exposed to things that are problematic, and parents didn’t have a good option to deal with it,” Clifford says. “Software to block bad websites is fine, but the world has quickly moved from black and white — the good and the bad — to shades of gray with good and bad content mixed in.”

Canopy’s software is fast enough to detect nudity and pornography before teens see it, according to Clifford, who says it can scan an hour long video in three seconds.

The technology keeps up well as users browse a variety of sites, even those that have just gone live, he said.

Kids Say Sexting Is No Big Deal

Of course, sexting — that is, sending, receiving or forwarding sexually explicit messages, photos or videos on their cell phones or other devices — was common long before the pandemic.

That’s according to a 2014 Drexel University survey of college students asking if they’d ever engaged in sexting. More than half — 54 percent — said they had, and also that sexting is no big deal and just a part of normal teenage flirting and courtship.

David DeMatteo, an associate professor of psychology and law at Drexel and one of the study authors, told Time magazine at the time that researchers not only were “shocked by the prevalence and the frequency of sexting” among teens, but also by how many of them thought it was “a normal, standard way of interacting” with one another.

Sexting is one way teens are cyberbullied — at times so relentlessly that they take their lives to escape it — but fewer than 1 percent those surveyed for the Drexel study reported they were bullied as a result of sexting. In fact, very few of the teens reported anything terrible happening to them as a result of their sexting activity. Only 8 percent said they endured humiliation or a tarnished reputation,

In the seven years since the Drexel University study, sexting became even more common — in the first month of the pandemic, searches for “how to sext” tripled, according to Google Trends data.

Today’s Mistakes Never Go Away

Many of today’s parents of teenagers were babies or preschoolers when the World Wide Web came online, but texting and social media are so intertwined with how kids communicate, entertain themselves and discover information that their smartphones have become an auxiliary appendage.

When kids parents made mistakes a couple of decades ago, they didn’t follow them around on the internet.

Today, photos are often shared widely, and deleting them can be a futile game of whack-a-mole in which it’s never fully deleted. People can also be charged with felonies for sharing nude photographs, do time in jail or have to register as a sex offender.

Just as many of today’s parents came up with creative ways to dodge the watchful eye of their parents, today’s kids are clever. Clifford says he often hears parents talking about how they’ve “finally figured out Facebook” without understanding their kids abandoned the platform years ago.

“It’s constantly shifting,” Clifford says. “Today’s parents can’t look to the wisdom of their parents or their grandparents. These are not the challenges they have to confront.”

And that puts parents of kids growing up in a hypersexualized culture in a bit of a pickle.

“Parents want to help their kids avoid mistakes and make smart decisions, but they don’t know how to do that without being a helicopter parent,” Clifford says. “Twenty years ago, it was unfortunate for a week or month, but not forever — today, the cost of sending that one text, that one lapse of judgment, is high.”

Canopy leverages Netspark technology developed a decade ago in Israel “so families could enjoy all the benefits of the online world without the toxic elements,” he says.

The U.S. application works in the background, scanning video for nudity, pornography and other age-inappropriate content in a matter of seconds, blocking the objectionable content before the user sees it and leaving appropriate content intact.

It’s called a “parental control app” — a term Clifford freely acknowledges that he and other developers of the software “hate” because it implies the helicopter parent approach that moms, dads and guardians want to avoid — but the decision on whether to sext or not rests with the parents.

Well, kind of. As Clifford explains it:

“Right now, if a 16-year-old takes a [sexually explicit] picture of themselves, the software flags it: ‘This may be inappropriate; do you want to delete or send to your mom for approval?’”

The goal, he says, is to “drive parents and children together and make this decision together.”

“That would be a great outcome from our perspective,” he says.

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