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Illegal cell phone activity and children
Feb. 14, 2011
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DC PTA meeting provides information “every parent needs to know”

By Jennifer Kotila
Staff Writer

DASSEL, COKATO, MN – Today, cell phones are not just a phone. They are used to surf the Internet, text, chat, take pictures, and to record and watch videos, amongst many other things.

Cell phones are also not just for adults anymore. More and more children are getting cell phones at younger ages.

In fact, cell phones have become vital to most teens’ identity, indicating social status or popularity, said Brian Stoll, senior probation agent for Wright County Court Services during the bi-monthly Parent Teacher Association meeting Feb. 3.

In a study conducted by Pew Research Center, an independent, non-partisan public opinion research organization that studies attitudes toward politics, the press, and public policy issues; 47 percent of teens said their social life would end or become considerably worse without a cell phone, and 57 percent credit a mobile device with improving their lifestyle, Stoll said.

Four out of five teens carry a cell phone, which is up 40 percent from 2004, according to Stoll.

Many children today get cell phones before they even reach their teens. Nearly half of all 8 to 12-year-olds own a cell phone, Stoll said, with most receiving their first cell phone around age 10 or 11.

Illegal cell phone activity

Unfortunately, with the increase in cell phone use among children, there has also been a rise in illegal cell phone activity among children.

Cell phones, with their advanced capabilities, have created an increase in cyberbullying and sexting among children, Stoll said.

Cyberbullying is the use of information and communication technologies to deliberately, repeatedly, and intentionally harass and harm another individual.

Sexting is the act of sending sexually explicit messages or photographs, primarily between mobile phones, he explained.

Twenty-two percent of teenage girls have sent or posted nude or semi-nude photographs or videos of themselves electronically, while 18 percent of teenage boys have, according to a 2008 survey of 1,280 teenagers and young adults conducted by Cosmogirl.com and sponsored by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, Stoll said.

The survey also found that 37 percent of teenage girls and 40 percent of teenage boys had sent or posted sexually suggestive messages, with 71 percent of them saying it was sent to a boyfriend or girlfriend.

When asked why they sent the sexual content, 66 percent of the girls and 60 percent of the boys said it was “fun and flirtatious.”

About half of the girls said it was a “sexy present” for their boyfriend. About half the girls also said they had sent it due to pressure from a guy.

Stoll noted many girls dating older guys get caught up in sending the “sexy present” pictures because they want to keep their typically older boyfriend.

What often happens is the guy’s friends will pressure him into sending them the “sexy” picture, which they then send out to numerous people and before the girl or guy even knows what has happened, the picture is everywhere, Stoll said.

Because it is easier for children to take – and then post or pass on – bad pictures or videos than it has been in the past, it is also a lot easier for children to commit a crime.

“We’ve had children as young as fifth grade sexting,” said Jeff Powers, DC superintendent. “It comes down to poor decision-making.”

Consequences for illegal cell phone activity

Although these young users often know they are not supposed to be sending illicit pictures or messages, teenagers often do not understand the real consequences behind their actions, Stoll said.

They also do not realize how quickly a picture or message can spiral out of control, with no way to take it back.

“Wright County Attorney Tom Kelly said a bad picture, whether taking it, viewing it, or passing it on, is the easiest felony to commit,” Stoll said.

Most of the crimes committed with pictures on phones are at the felony level, with a penalty of more than a year in prison and more than a $3,000 fine.

This may seem rather harsh, but child pornography laws were made to catch the 40-year-old men preying on children, not teenagers sexting each other, Stoll said.

Children taking sexually suggestive pictures, passing those pictures along, or just receiving those pictures, can be charged with several felony level crimes, including possession of child pornography, dissemination of child pornography, and sexual exploitation of a child, Stoll said.

“In my five years at DCHS, I have not had a confirmed incident of sexting or student harassment via cell phones during school hours,” said Steven Schauberger, DC High School’s dean of students. “However, I have had a handful of reports from students and families about harassment via text messages, email, Facebook, or Myspace outside of school that may cause verbal exchanges at school.”

Although they can be charged with felonies, when children in Wright County are caught in a situation involving sexting, a diversionary approach is often taken, Stoll said.

First of all, a school resource officer fully investigates the situation and sends a report to the county attorney.

If the attorney decides it is a good case for a diversionary approach, the school then holds a meeting with the student, the student’s parents, school officials, and a probation officer.

The diversionary approach is meant to educate the child about why their actions were wrong.

Usually a child will have to write a paper about what they did and why it is wrong, and complete some community service, Stoll said.

“We have dealt with these issues seriously by intervening administratively and involving our school resource officer,” Schauberger said. “In general, our staff and students work hard together to keep cell phone usage in school at a minimum.”

Tips for safe technology use

Stoll gave parents tips on what they can do to help prevent their child from getting into trouble with illegal cell phone activity.

• When parents first allow children to have a cell phone, make sure they understand that the messages and pictures they send are never truly anonymous, Stoll said.

The original recipient might forward or show the message or picture to others.

• Explain both the short term and long term consequences to children, and make sure they understand it, Stoll said.

• Continuously talk to children about cell phone use and safety.

• Check children’s phones. Not only will parents be able to find out a lot about their child, but they will also find something bad before it gets out of control.

Also, by checking the phone regularly, parents are giving their child a way out. If a child is being pressured to do something they know is wrong, they can tell their friends their parents check their phone, Stoll said.

• Parents can also talk to their cell phone provider and have some of their child’s cell phone components deactivated, such as the camera, or sending and receiving pictures.

• Other tips include limiting children’s electronic communication and computer time, know who children are communicating with online and on their cell phone, be aware of public postings made by children, and set expectations.

“We can eliminate a lot of the problems (with cell phones and the Internet) by simply parenting,” Stoll said.

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