By Starrla Cray
WRIGHT COUNTY, MN If you’re a parent, you might not know what “sexting” is, but there’s a good chance your teenaged son or daughter does.
Sexting (sending explicit pictures electronically, mainly through mobile phones) has become a pervasive problem among youth throughout the country, resulting in sometimes shocking consequences.
“It would be very difficult to be a teenager now,” Wright County probation officer Brian Stoll said during a recent presentation in Delano titled “sexting and cyber bullying in the new age of technology.”
According to a 2008 survey from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 22 percent of teen girls (ages 13 to 19) have sent/posted nude or semi-nude pictures or videos. For teen boys, it was reported at 18 percent.
“I think it’s actually higher than that,” Stoll said. “If you ask people if they sext, they don’t always say yes.”
Stoll said that although sexting also occurs among adults, the penalty is much harsher for minors.
As the law is currently written, sexting involving a teenager is considered child pornography. As such, it is classified as a felony, punishable by at least a year in jail and/or a $3,000 fine.
“These offenses require registration,” Stoll said. “Trying to get a job as a registered sex offender is very difficult.”
According to Stoll, teenagers who get caught for sexting should not be placed in the same category as other sex offenders.
“There needs to be something else, a different law that holds them accountable but is not as serious,” Stoll said. “I’ve been in areas where they pretend it’s not happening, while others are issuing felony charges. There’s got to be something in the middle.”
Help in Wright County
Wright County is already working toward this, with a restorative justice process that holds juveniles accountable without damaging their futures.
“We want to keep them out of the system,” Stoll said, adding that it is best to save registration for real predatory offenders.
Most youth-produced sexual images fall under the “experimental” category, and are not intended to cause harm.
The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy survey found that the majority of teens who sext do so to be “fun and flirtatious.” For girls, other top reasons included “sexy present” for boyfriend, pressure from a guy, as a joke, or to feel sexy.
In Wright County, the restorative justice process allows all parties involved to provide input.
The program, which is for Wright County residents only, strives to educate both the juveniles and parents, repair the harm done, stress the collateral consequences, deter further incidents, and keep juveniles out of the criminal justice system.
“It just puts closure to it,” Stoll said.
In addition to legal ramifications, sexting can also be emotionally devastating for teens.
One sobering example is 13-year-old Hope Witsell of Florida, who sent a topless photo of herself to a boy she liked.
Someone saw the photo while borrowing the boy’s cell phone, and soon, the picture was distributed to several students in her school, as well as neighboring schools. Witsell was taunted incessantly, and in 2009, she hanged herself in her bedroom.
A similar incident happened in 2008, when 18-year-old Jessica Logan of Ohio hanged herself after sending nude pictures of herself to her boyfriend.
With today’s technology, photographs can be widely distributed in a matter of seconds.
“Those pictures aren’t going away,” Stoll said. “Years from now, mothers and fathers will have to talk to their kids about why there’s a naked picture of them from high school.”
Technology and youth
A major reason why mobile pornography (known as mo-po) is becoming more prevalent is simply the increased usage of cell phones.
“We use our phones for everything these days. They’re not just for calling anymore,” Stoll said.
The Pew Research Center states that 76 percent of cell phone owners use their phones to take pictures, 72 percent send and receive text messages, 38 percent access the Internet, and 34 percent play games.
Technology is especially pervasive in young people’s lives.
In an AVG Digital Diaries study, it was found that small children today are more likely to navigate with a mouse, play a computer game, and operate a smartphone than swim, tie their shoelaces, or make their own breakfast.
Seven out of 10 children age 10 to 14 have phones, according to the International Data Corporation.
“Cell phones are vital to teens’ identities,” Stoll said, likening it to Girbaud jeans in the 1980s and Starter jackets in the 1990s.
The Pew Research survey showed that 47 percent of teens stated their social life would worsen or end without a cell phone.
“You have to remember how emotional you were at this age,” Stoll said. “The future is like, two hours from now; they don’t look past that.”
Parents can help their teens stay safe while using technology by helping them understand the short-term and long-term consequences of their actions, according to Stoll.
Stoll, for example, monitors his teenaged daughter’s Facebook page.
He’s heard that many teens will make two Facebook pages one for parents to see, and one that they actually use.
In order to catch this, Stoll advises parents to add their child’s core group of friends to their own Facebook friend list.
“That way, you will see your child’s posts,” he said. “That’s an easy trick.”
Several years ago, a 13-year-old from Pittsburgh named Alicia Kozakiewicz was kidnapped by a man she met in a Yahoo chat room.
Kozakiewicz was tortured and sexually assaulted for four days before a team of FBI agents rescued her.
Now, she speaks to other teens in an effort to alert them to the dangers of inappropriate Internet relationships.
More than 5 million Facebook users are under age 11, according to the Consumer Reports “State of the Net” survey.
“Be careful who they’re hanging out with,” Stoll said. “They might not like it now, but they’ll love you for it when they’re older. They need that structure.”
For more information about Wright County’s restorative justice process, contact Wright County Court Services at (763) 682-7306 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.