Technology accessible to our children is changing faster than parents can keep up with.
Parents of teenagers can remember when a phone was a device mounted on the wall of a kitchen with a cord that was long enough to hopefully stretch to the couch so that we could watch television while talking to our friends. We were bothered by the fact that our parents could listen to our conversations and complained about our lack of privacy.
Now we carry our phones in our pocket. We can communicate at anytime and anywhere. We are no longer bound by the privacy restricting cord; but neither are our children. The phones that we give our teens can be used to not only make and accept calls, but also to send and receive text messages, post status updates on Facebook, tweet, and take and distribute pictures. Yet the privacy we yearned for as children does not exist for the kids of today.
Our children are sharing their every moment online, whether it is a photograph of themselves at their favorite restaurant or on vacation with their friends. The simplicity of being able to take a photograph and then send it to a boyfriend or girlfriend has, in fact, given our children a false sense of privacy and security that they simply do not have.
Thinking only of the one person they want to see the photo, many of our children have become brazen and reckless, sending pictures of themselves scantly clad, nude, and at times, performing sexual acts on themselves or someone else. These photographs, known as "sexting," are distributed to their girlfriend/boyfriend without any consideration of the consequences that lie ahead. They do not realize that once these images leave their device and enter the cyber world the sender no longer has any control over who sees them. They have no say in whether the person on the other end keeps or deletes the image, posts it on a website or passes it along to others who, in turn, share it with their friends, some of whom may attend the same school as the sender or even live on the other side of the world.
Being a prosecutor, I unfortunately see the negative side of how this affects our children. Young boys and girls who commit the now criminal act of sexting quickly turn into victims, emotionally and mentally, with the possibility of a jeopardized future. They are tormented and humiliated that an image meant for only one other trusted person is now being viewed by hundreds, if not more, of their peers.
But the problem is worse than that. Over the past few years, law enforcement has seen a steady increase in the number of child pornography cases that involve sexted photos. Once an image is uploaded to the Internet, whether through a text message, an email or to social media such as Facebook, Twitter, The Vine, YouTube or Instagram, child predators and pornographers have the means, the tools, and the intelligence to find these pictures and add them to their child pornography libraries. They then use photos of your children for their own sexual gratification, as well as to sell to others.
In an effort to combat this ever growing problem, the Kanawha County sheriff's and prosecutor's offices, with the support of the West Virginia Internet Crimes Against Children Taskforce and the FBI's West Virginia Cyber Crimes Taskforce, earlier this year successfully urged the Legislature to pass a "sexting" law which now makes it a juvenile offense for a young person to send a nude picture or video of himself/herself or another, or for the receiver to solicit or retransmit the picture.
This is a good first step, but a new law won't solve the problem on its own. Parents need to weigh in too, not only by monitoring their teens' phone use, but also by sitting down with them and clearly explaining all of the possible consequences of sexting. At some point, a teen needs to know that the picture that they meant to be seen by only one other person may possibly be viewed by me (the prosecutor), you (their parents), law enforcement, a judge, maybe a jury, and, in the worst case scenario, a child predator or pornographer who will trade the image to fellow deviants throughout the world.
And it doesn't stop there. These photos will exist on the Internet forever and will be there for college admission directors and future employers and co-workers, as well as our kids' own children, to one day discover.
If you're the parent of a teen with a phone, it's much better to have that talk now rather than when we're sitting across from you and your child in court.
Lord is a senior assistant prosecuting attorney in Kanawha County.