By Diane Daniels (firstname.lastname@example.org)
7:31 PM EST, February 17, 2011
About 75 percent of teens now own cell phones, and most of those phones have texting and camera capabilities. That creates the perfect storm for a surge in teen text messages containing sexually explicit images. But, it’s becoming increasingly apparent to Michiana authorities that most teens don’t know the consequences of sexting, and many parents may not be aware of the dangers when they put that phone in their child’s hand.
2011 started with a local school, P-H-M’s Grissom Middle School, making sexting headlines. Now the St. Joseph County Prosecutor Mike Dvorak is involved in that case. In fact, he says his office is investigating more than 20 kids at 3 different area schools all accused of potentially being caught up in sexting.
“You’re seeing a greater report of these incidents of children actually producing porn of themselves or friends and transmitting it to others,” Dvorak said. “What they don’t realize is they’re putting themselves at danger. For a child to take a sexually explicit picture of themselves is illegal. Now we have children as a lark or a gag taking pictures and sending them to friends and they can be placed into the commerce of child pornography,” Dvorak said.
Last year at a Valparaiso middle school, authorities were called in when nude pictures were exchanged via cell phone between a 12 and 13 year old. That case also landed in the lap of the local prosecutor.
“’You show me yours, I’ll show you mine’ sort of thing. The problem is it is illegal. They’re posted on cell phones. They’re posted on the internet and they never go away,” commented Porter County Prosecutor Brian Gensel after the incident hit the news in January of 2010.
Recent surveys find 30 percent of young people admit to sexting. During a recent cyber security seminar at PHM’s Schmucker Middle School, when seventh and eighth-graders were asked if they had heard of sexting, a sea of hands went up among the students. Notre Dame cyber safety and security expert, Robert Riley, has been volunteering to conduct sessions for all PHM middle school students throughout the last three months to educate them about the dangers of a number of high tech activities, including sexting.
“So this is always illegal. It’s important to understand sexting is always illegal,” Riley told the kids.
And that nugget of information came as a surprise to most of the students interviewed following Riley’s presentation.
“I didn’t know it was actually illegal. I thought they just didn’t want you to do them [sexting] because they’re really bad,” said Jacqueline Murphy, a Schmucker seventh-grader.
“I knew it wasn’t a good thing to do, I didn’t know it was like a federal offense,” added eighth-grader Corcharnelia Martin. “Why would you want to do that to yourself, expose yourself that way? Even if you send it to one person, it could get out to other people and you could be totally embarrassed,” Martin said.
Seventh-grader Brodie Balsley also said he was unaware sexting was illegal.
“I’ll definitely be anxious to talk to my mom about all the illegal things and inappropriate things that can happen,” he said.
Riley educated the middle schoolers about how to handle a “sext” from the very moment of discovery.
“So it’s really important to understand the difference between the discovery of child porn and the distribution. Because if you discover it by accident, it’s not going to get you into any trouble,” Riley explained as he encouraged kids to go to a trusted adult immediately if they discover a sext on their phone.
“But if you save it, create it, distribute it, there are serious ramifications,” he explained. “It’s possession and it’s a federal crime. If you send that to someone else, it’s a federal offense, which is also a crime.”
“It’s important to understand the difference between discovering, possessing and distributing it, okay?” Riley cautioned the students.
Riley has also held sessions with some of the parents of P-H-M middle school kids.
“Some parents, quite frankly, operate on the ‘hope’ system,” Riley observed. “They say here’s the technology and I hope you stay safe and that’s not really a viable plan. I can see they don’t understand these issues themselves. They don’t understand technology themselves. They stumble when trying to relay that to their kids. What I’ve found is parents aren’t well prepared to explain to kids how to stay safe online and for teachers this is traditionally not an area of expertise for teachers.”
Some of the parents who have attended Riley’s sessions admit that the amount of technology their kids have access to and the specter of sexting is overwhelming.
“I just worry about if they send something inappropriate how it will affect them down the line, not today, but ten years from now will the picture pop up and affect their life later?” worries Kim Latimer, a parent and the president of P-H-M’s Discovery Middle School Parent Teacher Organization.
Parent Nancy Rzeszutko wasn’t even sure if her kids were aware of sexting or not.
“I don’t know if they know what it means,” she said. “We haven’t talked to them, but we will be tonight, though,” Rzeszutko said after attending Riley’s session.
Prosecutors, like Dvorak, have a whole range of penalties they can impose on kids for sexting, everything from diversion programs to juvenile court to trying kids as adults. Staffers in Dvorak’s office also add that another scary thing parents need to be aware of is that with GPS technology on phones, if a child takes an inappropriate picture and sends it out, a tech savvy predator could decode the GPS tag on the photo revealing exactly where the child was when the photo was taken. That could literally provide a road map leading straight to the child.
Experts typically suggest that a parent’s best game plan to deter sexting behavior among kids is to get educated on the issue and to talk to their children. There is also some evidence in surveys by the Pew Research Center that suggest kids whose texts are monitored or limited by parents are less likely to be involved in sexting. As for taking away the technology, Riley says prohibition doesn’t work. He says the key is teaching kids to live with the technology and to become good digital citizens.
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