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'Sexting' Opens Door to Legal, Safety Issues for Kids

Nearly 77 percent of all calls made to Springfield-Greene County's 9-1-1 center are from mobile devices. The national average
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Nearly 77 percent of all calls made to Springfield-Greene County's 9-1-1 center are from mobile devices. The national average

The first day of classes for Springfield Public Schools is Tuesday, and most older kids will be taking with them one item they consider more important than all the others combined: a cell phone. KSMU’s Jennifer Moore reports that many kids are finding out the hard way that sending certain types of text messages can quickly put them at risk.

It’s called “sexting,” and it’s when someone sends a graphic picture text of him or herself to another person’s cell phone.

"The Pew Survey says that one out of six teens has received a sexually suggestive image of someone that they know," says Melissa Haddow, executive director of the Community Partnership of the Ozarks.

She says it usually begins as something private between boyfriend and girlfriend. But time after time, when they break up, those pictures are sent around, often maliciously.

And that’s just the beginning of the trouble for the person in the picture.

“It could even affect their career, their job—those kinds of things. In a recent case here, they’ve got bribery going on—‘If you don’t send me more pictures…’ There’s intimidation and threats and bribery and exploitation of children,” she said.

Law enforcement officials even have a term for that, too: “sexploitation.” That’s when the person with the pictures takes advantage of the person in the photo, demanding money or sexual favors in exchange for a promise not to make the pictures public.

Many photos that started out with a boyfriend or girlfriend have ended up in the hands of child predators.

Sarah Odom is the assistant principal at Kickapoo High School.

“Has it been saved on a server somewhere? Maybe he doesn’t have it anymore, but because it was on a server, has somebody else with access to that server—is it now on their computer? And [at that point], maybe somebody in Hawaii has a picture of your daughter,” she said.

The young age of the kids in the photos can also lead to legal ramifications.

Odom says if someone is found to have a cell phone with nude or sexually graphic pictures of a minor, then child pornography charges can come into play.“If the subject in the photos is a minor, then if any pictures get exchanged or if they’re sent over a phone or over the internet, first of all, if that server has crossed state lines, then potentially it’s a federal crime,” Odom said.

In a Pennsylvania case last year, three teenage girls got caught sending nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves to boys in their high school. The girls were charged with manufacturing, disseminating and possessing child porn, while the boys were also charged with possession.

Sarah Odom gave a presentation on “sexting” a few days ago to the parents of incoming Kickapoo freshmen. She says a couple of parents have already contacted her since then.

“On the way home, they asked their kids, ‘What’s on your phone? Has anyone ever asked you to do something that you didn’t want to do?’ And then another parent said, ‘Give me your phone. I want to look at it.’ So, you know, if the parent’s paying for the phone, then it’s every parent’s right to ask to know what’s on the phone, and to see what’s on the phone,” Odom said.

And Melissa Haddow says when the parent is paying for the cell phone, then the child is much less likely to send sexually explicit text messages.

She also said research shows the number one thing parents can do to help prevent their kids from “sexting” is limit the amount of text messages on their cell phone plan.

Brooke McMillin is a senior at Kickapoo High School, and the Student Body president.

“Well…it’s pretty common, because people think it’s such a private ordeal and they do it between boyfriend and girlfriend. And they think it’s only gonna go to that one person. But then, the boy sends it to all of his friends and the girls sends it to all of hers. And that’s how it gets out of control,” McMillin said.I asked McMillin how early she first heard of it going on in her school.“Sexting? Oh, probably, like seventh grade. Yeah, sixth or seventh grade—middle school was when I probably heard about it. And I think now, they hear about it at an even younger age,” she said.

Obviously, if a child has a phone with picture text privileges, then there’s no sure-fire way to guarantee they will never send a graphic text to someone else, especially if there’s peer pressure involved.

But the next best thing, Odom says, is to teach your child about a little concept called self-respect.

"Getting the message out to respect yourself, and to not allow yourself to be put in a precarious position where you are regretting something that you’ve done. We don’t expect teenagers, or anyone, to be perfect. However, love your body. Love yourself. And protect it," Odom said.

She also advises parents to talk to their kids about respecting others, and not asking someone you like to do something they’re uncomfortable with, or something that would degrade them.

For KSMU News, I’m Jennifer Moore.

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