Photo by Sofia Higgins.
As you probably already have heard, last weekend a hacker uploaded nude and sexually explicit photos that were stolen from the online ‘cloud’ storage accounts of a number of actresses, models, and pro-athletes including Jennifer Lawrence (Hunger Games, X-Men), Victoria Justice (Victorious, iCarly), and Kate Upton (Sports Illustrated Swimsuit model).
The celebrity images immediately went viral, and have since been seen and shared by an unfathomable number of people. Although the young women whose photos were leaked have very capable PR teams doing their best to get the pictures removed, it is likely they will never fully go away.
In light of the spectacle surrounding this ordeal, we wanted to provide parents and youth leaders with a few things to keep in mind when this story comes up in conversations you have with young people in the days ahead.
1. Don’t dismiss this situation as trivial pop culture gossip.
The young women whose images were posted are extremely popular among teens. Researchers have found that young people often view these types of teen icons more like friends and role models than distant celebrities. Accordingly, there is an abundance of research that illustrates how young celebrities are able to impact their fans’ political views, fashion sense, and purchasing decisions. In other words, this story will likely hit home with young people more than it might for adults. Many of them see these stars as their cool older friends.
2. Remember that you’re talking about real people, not just celebrities.
It is easy for this conversation to veer off and become one about paying the high price of fame in our culture. As Christians, we still believe that these young women were created by God in his own image, regardless of how much money their last film made at the box office or how they conduct their personal lives off-camera. Put the situation into your own perspective for the young people you talk to; imagine if this was your daughter, her best friend, your sister, or your significant other and their privacy had been violated this severely and publicly. How would you feel?
3. Keep in mind that this could happen to anyone.
These women were certainly targeted because of their fame, but if anything that means the rest of us are even more vulnerable. New York trial lawyer Martin Garbus was quoted in response to this situation, “Nothing is safe on the Internet, period. Everything on your iPhone, whether it be phone calls, message texts, pictures, is all available.” Some law firms have even gone so far as to stop using email altogether for fear of unknowingly breaking the attorney-client privilege.
Here’s an important lesson for all of us that this particular incident illustrates: everything you share digitally can find its way onto a stranger’s screen (if it hasn’t already).
4. Have the conversation about viewing these types of photos.
As we have said often in this series, online behavior tends to be very consistent with offline behavior. This story may raise anxieties about whether or not young people are taking and sharing photos of themselves that are similar to the ones that were leaked. Thankfully, the percentage of teens engaging in sexting has been steadily declining in recent years. In a 2014 study on teen sexting, just one percent of the young people interviewed said they had sent or received sexually explicit nude photos. Teens are appreciating the risks involved, and more and more are making their own decision to avoid it altogether, thanks in part to news stories like this one. The odds are extremely low that the young people you know are taking, sending, or sharing images like the ones that were stolen from these celebrities.
If there is a conversation we need to be having more often with young people, it is about viewing pornographic images like the ones that were leaked.
In the limited amount of research that exists on how much young people are viewing online pornography, there are a few points worth considering as you engage in conversations about this scandal:
- For young men, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that religiosity has been identified as one of the only factors that seems to significantly reduce the chances of a man (of any age) viewing online porn. The bad news is that an overwhelming majority of young men are nevertheless still viewing it.
- As it relates to young women, only a very small percentage actually view porn, while the majority condemn it. However those who condemned porn described it as oppressive and demeaning towards women, purely in terms of social equality and not based on any religious beliefs or moral commitments.
We need to do a better job communicating to young men and women that viewing sexually explicit images like the ones that were posted ought to be uniquely, superlatively offensive to us as Christians. Yes, viewing these kinds of images is demeaning and oppressive towards women, but it also distorts the way both genders interact with one another, destroys relationships, and becomes a major stumbling block for many young men as they try to follow Jesus. Moreover, as it relates to this particular incident, the images were stolen and shared without the consent of the women appearing in them. Some commentators have argued that this is comparable to sexual assault.
This can be a really difficult conversation to have with young people, but this news story may provide a natural opportunity to talk about it. While there’s temptation to simply respond by saying, “those women never should have taken the pictures in the first place,” or “you better not look at them!” let’s instead make the most of this unfortunate situation as a teachable moment that puts our alarming lack of privacy online into perspective, and allows us to engage with the tough topic of online pornography.
As we are empathetic and forgiving towards the young women who were victimized, it will demonstrate our capacity to do so towards celebrities that many young people view as friends.
 See: Giles, D. C., & Maltby, J. (2004). The role of media figures in adolescent development: Relations between autonomy, attachment, and interest in celebrities. Personality and individual differences, 36(4), 813-822.; Jackson, D. J., & Darrow, T. I. (2005). The influence of celebrity endorsements on young adults’ political opinions. The Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 10(3), 80-98.; Dix, S., Phau, I., & Pougnet, S. (2010). “Bend it like Beckham”: the influence of sports celebrities on young adult consumers. Young Consumers: Insight and Ideas for Responsible Marketers, 11(1), 36-46.
 Dastin, J., Parks, M., Reaney, P., Kelsey, E. (Sept. 2, 2014). “Celebrity Photo Breach Heightens Online Security Warnings.” Reuters U.S. Retrived from: http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/09/02/us-entertainment-photos-idUSKBN0GX1XO20140902
 Singha, Alex. (Aug. 14, 2014). “How US Surveillance Threatens Attorney-Client Privilege.” Jurist Magazine. University of Pittsburgh. Retrived from: http://jurist.org/hotline/2014/08/alex-sinha-attorney-client-privilege.php
 Lounsbury, K., Mitchell, K., & Finkelhor, D. (2011). The true prevalence of “sexting”. Durham, NH, Crimes Against Children Research Center, University of New Hampshire. [This study helpfully points out that “sexting” has been defined in a wide variety of ways throughout the existing studies on this topic. The percentage cited above reflects the percentage of teens who have sent or received images comparable to those that were leaked. The percentage may be higher for less explicit, but still sexually provocative, text messages and photos.]