Part Two: Sexting
By Dina Samfield
AYER/SHIRLEY -- During a recent public presentation on cyber safety at the Ayer-Shirley Regional Middle School, Ariana Coniglio, prevention & education coordinator for Middlesex Partnerships for Youth, informed parents about a troubling trend: 39 percent of teens and 59 percent of young adults are now said to be participating in the activity known as "sexting."
Sexting is defined by the U.S. court system as "an act of sending sexually explicit materials through mobile phones." The messages may be text, photo or video.
"It can be a touchy topic, but it is being used by middle-schoolers," Coniglio said. "If we talk about it, we can help keep it from happening in the first place."
What many parents do not know is that sending or receiving a sexually suggestive text or image of someone under the age of 18 is considered child pornography and can result in criminal charges in nearly all 50 states.
According to dosomething.org, billed as "the country's largest not-for-profit for young people and social change," among 14- to 24-year-olds who admit to sexting, 29 percent send these messages to people they have never met, but know from the Internet.
Sending semi-nude or nude photos is more common among teen girls, and sexually suggestive messages are more common among boys than girls. Seventeen percent of sexters share the messages they receive with others, and 55 percent of those share them with more than one person.
Teenage girls say they have a few reasons for sexting: 40 percent do it as a joke, 34 percent do it to feel sexy, and 12 percent feel pressured to do it. Eleven percent of teen girls ages 13 to 16 have been involved with sending or receiving sexually explicit messages.
"A lot of kids think it is fun or they are being silly, but if you are allowing your child to have a phone, it is a good idea to have a conversation with your child about this because this is a serious crime," Coniglio said.
Set rules, learn safeguards
Parents who allow their children to have cellphones should set rules for their use and discuss what sort of information and images are appropriate to share via text, Coniglio stated.
"You can block images from being received and sent," she said, adding that if children show they can handle having a phone, parents can give them a little more flexibility.
"Know what safeguards are available on your child's phone, such as turning off and/or blocking texting and picture features," she said.
"Think about what would happen if your child were charged with passing pornography -- how it affects your future. Talk to your child about it."
Some of the consequences of being charged with the crime include denial of college admission, ineligibility for student financial aid, restrictions on employment, and restrictions on where you live.
Ayer Patrol Officer Jennifer Bigelow said there are many cases of kids taking pictures at the age of 10 or 11, "and then they come back up. Someone will post it and it will be affiliated with certain schools."
She said that fortunately, in Massachusetts, there is a Juvenile Diversion Program that works with first-time juvenile offenders between the ages of 7 and 17 that offers an alternative to the juvenile court system. In that case, the charge would not go on the offender's criminal record.
But, she warned, "Once a sex offender, you are a sex offender for life."
Even a person who takes a photo of himself or herself can be charged with the dissemination of pornography.
"A lot of girls take shots of themselves, and even if no face is shown, the word gets out and then it goes online. It's not just between cellphones, but it can show up in India and places all over the world we don't know about, and the kids know more than we do and pick up new things, so it's hard to track," Bigelow said.
"We don't want to charge a child," added Shirley Police Sergeant Alfreda Cromwell, "but the DA wants to know. It is really about helping them," she said of youthful offenders.
In response to a question from the audience about whether or not parents are liable for their children's cellphone activities, Coniglio suggested that anything parents see that is questionable should be reported right away.
"The key here is prevention. Talk with your children beforehand and let them know what can happen as a result. A phone really is a handheld computer, so it is hard to control. Monitoring is key, but dialogue is more important, because you can't control every time your child is going on the Internet."
Next Week: Part Three: Cyberbullying and Online Predators.