Texting is just one outlet through which privacy violations spread among teens. By Zawezome, flickr.

It’s an act that happens daily — sending a private text message or photo. But for today’s youth, a simple click of the “send” button can make a private photo public in ways that have painful and sometimes tragic consequences.

The recent suicide of 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University freshman, after a roommate posted a video of him having a sexual encounter with another man, is rare. But, Mission students said, public humiliation occurs more often in an era where privacy boundaries are regularly overstepped.

Michael, a high school senior whose name has been changed for privacy purposes, said that last year a girl texted a naked photo of herself to a boy she was dating. The boy lent his cell phone to a friend who looked through the phone’s photos without permission, came across the naked picture and sent it to other students.

“It ruined her. Everybody called her a slut,” said Michael, sounding remorseful for an incident he said he took no part in.

“When I saw her in the halls, she always had her head down. I talked to her. She felt violated.”

Michael said the girl transferred out of the school at the end of the year.

Take another example that occurred in the same Mission school. A girl asked her aunt via text for advice on opening up about her bisexuality. Afterward, the girl’s best friend snooped through her phone and saw the text.

Later, when the two friends got into a fight, the ex-best friend leaked the details of the text to other students. Rumors spread, and the girl denied being bisexual for a while until eventually admitting it.

“It’s wild,” said Jessica Ozberker, referring to the amount of privacy violations among today’s youth.

Ozberker — a counselor and case manager at 7 Tepees, a Mission-based organization that works with urban youth — said it’s become so normalized, that some students don’t even realize when the line is being crossed.

“Kids are grabbing each other’s personal things, like phones, all the time. And they don’t even seem uncomfortable with it,” said Ozberker, who works with youth ages 11-17.

Adolescents don’t often view themselves as perpetrators either.

Ozberker said she had a case in which a teenage couple had problems over jealousy — the girl wanted to look through the boy’s phone, but he refused, saying it was his personal property. “But he would look through her phone. He didn’t realize there was something wrong with that,” said Ozberker.

The interactions in question reach further than cell phone scandals, however. The omnipresence of the Internet, and popular social networking sites, provides one more outlet where privacy issues spawn — among adults and teens alike.

Michael said he experienced his own bizarre instance of a privacy lapse. A girl he didn’t know saw his Facebook photo when she was on a mutual friend’s profile, downloaded it to her phone and showed it to people, telling them Michael was the father of her child.

That rumor that Michael was a “baby’s daddy” circulated around school before local gang members approached him about it. Michael told them the truth and said the group believed him, calling the girl “crazy.”  They promised to speak to her, and he said the gossip died down after the encounter.

On MySpace, some teens hacked into a male student’s profile page.

“They put pictures posting his head all over nasty things,” said Michael, and changed the boy’s profile to say, “I like guys.” Some people believed the student was gay and refused to talk to him because of it, said Michael.

The extent that privacy violation is a school issue remains debatable.

“There are just posters about it on the walls,” said Michael, adding that the matter is never addressed at school. “They never tell you, ‘Don’t post things on the Internet.’ They need to educate people more.”

Ozber said that “schools create different levels of safety. It’s the responsibility of caregivers to institutionalize a safe space where there are boundaries.”

But it’s usually only when a tragedy happens that the wrongdoers are exposed.

Three days before Clementi’s suicide, his roommate, Dharun Ravi, secretly taped Clementi’s intimate moments and streamed them live on the Internet, allegedly with the help of another classmate, Molly Wei. Ravi made a second attempt to stream footage of Clementi two days later and sent a Twitter message to his followers about the plan.

Ravi and Wei have been charged with two counts of invasion of privacy and face up to five years in prison if convicted.

At John O’Connell High School’s Wellness Center, counselor Vanessa Varko-Fontana said the issue of privacy violation is not one she comes across often. Joe Albano, a guidance counselor at Mission High School, said he wasn’t aware of any specific instances but that he thinks the problem is very prevalent.

Perhaps the absence of privacy violation revelations to school counselors can be explained by what Michael calls a  “no snitch policy.”

“If you tell, people might get you. If that girl [who sent the naked picture] had found out who sent it and told the counselors, people would hate her.”

Ozberker knows the policy well. “You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t.

For Ozberker, the matter goes beyond privacy violation. “Ultimately, it’s a safety issue. Young people’s lives are at stake. It’s a big deal!”

Michael sees it in simpler terms. “It causes kids to do bad. They skip classes because they feel bad.”

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  1. These days everyone needs to think twice before posting anything where anyone has a chance to get access to it, and I mean anything! Something that can seem completely innocent to one person can become something else to someone who may have a different motive. You are always better off erring on the more cautious side.

  2. Michael — you said you were sorry about what happened to your former(?) girlfriend, about her picture being sent out of your phone without your permission. I want you to know you are awesome for talking about this! Thats just the kind of message other guys need to hear. This obviously hurts girls, but guys are rarely talked about except in context of things they are doing wrong. The person who sent the photo out from your phone was most in the wrong. The girlfriend was trying to share something special with you and made a mistake. You know, you could talk more about this, and since you’re in many ways least in the wrong you ought to feel empowered to speak up about this. Good for you! If you are reading this and want to comment without disclosing details about the girl, nothing that would identify her, it would be great to hear more from you. But in any case, thanks for your perspective!