A Twitter trend on Long Island may be taking parents by surprise as their kids post compromising photos of themselves engaged in underage drinking.
Twitter shuttered a site called @LIPartyStories in late March that showed Long Island teenagers or their friends passed out, in various states of undress, vomiting into toilets or garbage cans and urinating into houseplants or kitchen sinks. Many photos had names and communities attached.
But days later, more such Twitter handles cropped up seeking photos. "We are back in business, baby," one handle's follower tweeted.
And many photos from the original site can still be seen on the Web, even though the handle has been suspended. The postings span the Island -- photos mention Commack, Farmingdale, Hicksville, Huntington, Islip, Kings Park, Lindenhurst, Oceanside, Plainedge, Rockville Centre, Wantagh, Westbury, Valley Stream.
What's a parent to do?
The posting of photos adds another dimension of risk to underage drinking -- the illegal escapades are now immortalized on the Internet, easily shared with thousands of site followers and anyone else who might peruse the Twitter handle.
Even if your child hasn't posted any photos or appeared in any, you should still have yet another talk about the permanency of images on the Web, experts say. "Many parents have this conversation once and say, 'I had the conversation, I'm done,'" says Jeffrey Reynolds, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, also known as LICADD. "This story in itself is a great opportunity to have a renewed conversation with your kids about social media."
Reynolds says he worries about the sense of exhibitionism and the need to one-up classmates that such sites encourage. "There's a spiraling need to go better and badder," he says, which can have serious consequences.
Because parents or other adults frequently aren't aware of these Twitter handles, kids may think they are safe places to post images without repercussions, says Gregory Hall, a sociology professor of psychology at Bentley University in Massachusetts who specializes in the influence of the Internet on human behavior. "They're wrong," he says.
Kids need to understand that anyone can download their photos and redistribute them; if their name is tagged, search engines may archive it. Once a photo is shared, it's very difficult to eradicate.
"Although it may not impact you in the moment, it may impact you two, three, four years down the line," Reynolds says. He says he does a Google image search and looks at the Facebook and Twitter accounts for every person he is considering hiring. "I look for any clues to what kind of person they are and what they do in their personal life," he says.
Such photos can lead to immediate psychological ramifications for the child in the photo. "Kids can be so devastated by this," says Valerie Taylor, a guidance counselor at Syosset High School. "Anxiety, depression, emotional distress." Students have committed suicide after being ridiculed on the Web.
Whether schools can discipline a student for an activity that occurs off school property depends on the situation, says Giovanni Durante, principal of Syosset High. "At the very least, I have a moral obligation as a high school principal to contact the child's parents and work with them on changing the student's negative behavior."
The schools strive to educate children through repeated assemblies and speakers. "Are we doing anything in response to this particular thing? No," says Donna Kraus, public information coordinator for the Oceanside School District. "If you're asking do we educate kids about putting photos like this up online? Yes."
Beyond that, it's a parent's responsibility. "Our school district and most school districts have education programs to help kids make healthy choices. But we're not with them all the time," she says.
The Twitter handles seem to be trickling down from similar college Twitter handles such as @SUNYPartyStory, which launched last spring and has a weekly competition to select the best party photos submitted from students in the SUNY college system.
Patrick Malowski, the multimedia editor at The Oswegonian, a SUNY Oswego campus publication, was able to interview the founder of @SUNYPartyStory on the condition of anonymity. Malowski asked the founder -- whom he says is not an Oswego student -- why he thinks people send in photos. "Some people like their little 15 minutes of fame," Malowski says.
Malowski also interviewed students who have appeared on that feed and says they see being featured as "cool." He confirms Reynolds' fear that such sites cause students to attempt more and more outrageous acts in order to be noticed and garner the approval of their peers. For instance, Malowski says, some students decided to tip a car while partying and photographed that in an attempt to make the @SUNYPartyStory cut.
Massapequa High School students interviewed about the partying Twitter sites express varying opinions. "It's pretty funny, I gotta be honest," says senior Joe Tasch, 18. "It makes fun of how stupid people are." Fellow senior Matt Goldberg, 18, agreed. "It's just one of those things you look at for a good laugh if someone retweets it," he says.
Both students, however, say they understand why the site is "frowned upon." "Obviously, underage drinking and drugs shouldn't be happening," Goldberg says.
"I think it's really gross, actually," says Massapequa senior Gina Vigilante, 18. "I just don't get why someone would post that on the Internet."
Senior Alyssa Brower, 17, resents that the Twitter pictures reflect on teens as a whole. "It's just giving our generation a bad name, when not all of our population is that way."
Brower's mom, Lisa, says parents need to be more aware of what their children are doing. Alyssa would be in big trouble if she ever appeared on such as site, she says. "I would probably lock her in her room until ... I don't know," Lisa says. "Some tough love is needed around here."
Parents should set up a Google alert to notify them whenever their child's name is mentioned on the Web, says Craig Delsack, a technology and business lawyer with his own Manhattan firm. If they see their child on such a site, parents need to take action.
Even if a name isn't mentioned, parents should try to get photos removed, he says, though it's an often frustrating and fruitless endeavor. In the future, when face recognition software becomes more advanced, people may be able to use a photo to search for and identify other past posted images, he says. "It's just a matter of time when pictures are going to be automatically tagged with a name," he predicts.
Parents must separately notify each website where a photo is shared, requesting that it be deleted, Delsack says.
"It's Whac-A-Mole," he says, referring to the children's game where once a player smacks down a mole's head, more of them pop up. "Unfortunately, it's the victim who has to spend the time to deal with these things."
It can be exasperating, agrees LICADD's Reynolds. "I do know of parents who have tried to have pictures removed ... who have had a really hard time. It's hard to get in touch with anyone."
That was the case for Newsday. A request to talk to a Twitter official was met with an email response referring Newsday to the Twitter support page with instructions on how to report Twitter rules violations. Twitter declined or ignored follow-up requests for a telephone interview with a company representative.
"Prevention," Reynold says, "is still the best solution."