Police Teach Parents How to Respond to Unsolicited Teen Sexting of Inappropriate Photos

| May 30, 2014 | 0 Comments | Education

If a teenager were to take a naked photo of his or himself on a phone and send it to another person, she or he has now broken three very serious laws: creating child pornography, possessing of child pornography and disseminating child pornography.

Officer James Conway, a Prince William County Police Safety Resource Officer, spoke to Prince William parents and students at Marsteller Middle School’s Internet Safety and Social Media Info Night sponsored by the PTO Tuesday evening. Twenty-one families attended, bringing along children between the ages of 10 and 14.

Conway focused on the dangers of the internet and social media for students in grades seven through 12. He especially focused on incidents of “sexting” or sharing texts of sexual content.

Among the biggest dangers for minors is sending or receiving pictures of other minors on their electronic devices because those photos are considered child pornography regardless of the age of the viewer. Conway said that while child pornography laws were written with adults in mind, not teens and tweens, minors will still be charged under these laws.

Until the laws are changed, teens that share naked photos of friends or peers can be prosecuted as sex offenders. And while some parents think that juvenile records are sealed, many of these offenses follow juveniles into adulthood, causing them to have to register as a low-level sex offender at their school and in their communities for several years.

“I used to talk about in high school this is happening. Unfortunately, this is happening in the middle schools,” he told parents.

Conway said parents and students should know how to respond if a child receives an inappropriate text or especially a photo that he or she did not solicit.

If that child is at home, he or she should bring the information directly to one of his or her parents. If it happens in a school, the child should bring the information to an administrator. Conway explained it is preferable that the child contacts an administrator, rather than their teacher, so fewer people are involved. The next step is for the parent or administrator to contact the police immediately.

Prince William police ask that the individual who received the photo does not erase it off their phone, until he or she talks with police . He says it is better for a person to call the police than have the police find them.

Conway said it is likely police will have to contact them because “when we start tracking these pictures…just because it is deleted doesn’t mean no one will find it.”

Contacting police is a way for minors to say they are innocent, because they received something they did not ask for, and then responded through the appropriate channels.

“Are we going to charge you with [a felony for receiving] that?” he asked. “No, because you contacted us.”

On the downside, the phone or device is likely to be confiscated. Eventually, the owners should receive monetary compensation for their confiscated device. Should the person or persons who posted and/or shared the photo be convicted of a crime, they will likely be required to pay for retribution for all the devices confiscated as part of the investigation.

However, Conway wants people not to be afraid to call the police in such an incident, but to look at the bigger picture: protecting themselves and their children from being charged with a crime.

Most of the time, people do not understand the severity of what has occurred. Conway said he took 18 cell phones from one Prince William school and the number one question he received from parents was, “‘when do I get my phone back?’ Not, ‘I heard you say sex offender: what does that mean? I heard you say felony.’”

Conway believes this means more needs to be done to educate parents about these laws.

Conway said police are not looking to charge people who receive images, but they will charge people who share them. Besides being child pornography, sharing naked photos of a young person can harm that person’s reputation in numerous ways.

In one incident Officer Conway shared, without mentioning the names of those persons involved, a teenage girl found naked photos of her boyfriend’s ex on his phone. She sent them to people she knew in order to punish the other young woman. As a consequence, the girl who sent the photos has to register as a low-level sex offender until age 27.

In other cases, teens send a photo to a boyfriend or girlfriend. Even though they do not expect those photos will be shown to anyone else, often times the photo is shared with others and then there is no way to stop it from being seen.

“In high school there are relations, and if you hit the four week mark, you are in a long term relationship,” Conway said. “But what happens when the relationship is over?”

He advises teens to assume anything they are texting or sharing on social media is public, and not to share anything they would not want to be made public.

To show just how quickly a photo can go viral through a community, he showed a video of a girl who was asked to send a sexy photo. Within minutes the photo makes it rounds through her high school. By the evening, her little brother and her parents have all received the photo as well. Conway said it does happen.

Conway said that his department tries to track down photos so the photos can be completely erased. However, as they spread far and wide, he does not expect that he will ever be able to retrieve all copies.

Conway also spoke about other dangers online such as dealing with predators masquerading as teens. Teens and tweens should not take for granted that people are who they say they are online.

It’s not that difficult to do. In fact, the SRO officers even have fake Facebook and Twitter accounts, so they can keep track of what’s going on with the students in the schools where they work. Teens friend them all the time.

Conway said that parents need to monitor their children’s accounts. However, it may be tricky. He said that their children might have a decoy account just for communicating with relatives, and then a real one where they interact with their friends.

He also said it becomes difficult to keep up with changing social media. Young people will flock to Vine, Tumblr, or Kik and are returning to MySpace. Many will avoid sites their parents frequent, such as Facebook.

Next year, Prince William high schools will work with Prince William police to teach ninth grade students about the dangers of texting, and possible consequences of their actions. Conway hopes further steps are taken to inform parents of the consequences as well.

He hopes that the parents who attended the meeting will discuss what they learned with their friends.

Parents who attended the meeting requested that the school system not wait until ninth grade, but address this issue as early as fifth grade, since as the officer said, children are sexting at younger ages.

Conway ran out of time to present on cyberbullying, but he said that is being discussed in the schools much more than sexting is. He asks that parents have a discussion about sexting and the law with their children.

Other warnings to parents Conway had was to watch out for Geotagging in photos taken on phones, and to check privacy settings as Facebook changes its settings every few months.

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