Opinion

Law targets sex offenders in schools, but what about sexting? | Amy Johnson

Raise your hand if you’ve wondered in the past week whether there’s a registered sex offender at your child’s middle or high school.

News reports about 18-year-old Jose Reyes being charged with attacking a 14-year-old developmentally disabled girl on a Seattle high school campus have fueled outrage over how this could have ever happened.

In response to this incident, State Rep. Kirk Pearson (R-Monroe) is reintroducing legislation that would mandate notification of parents if any sex offender is enrolled in their child’s school. And here’s where it gets tricky.

Under current law, “sexting” (sending nude or semi-nude pictures of oneself or another) can be considered child pornography if involving anyone under 18. These acts can be tried as felonies, requiring the convicted wrongdoer to register as a sex offender. As offensive, inappropriate and illegal as teen sexting is, I don’t believe most of these lawbreakers belong in the same category as Jose Reyes and other sex offenders, at least not for a first offense.

According to a survey of 653 teens by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and Cosmogirl.com, 20 percent of teens say they have sent or posted a nude or semi-nude picture or video of themselves. Forty percent of teens say they’ve had a sexually suggestive message shared with them, and 20 percent of these have passed it on to someone other than for whom it was originally intended.

Increasingly, these types of incidents result in very public legal action taken by both offenders and victims, allegations of child pornography, and even suicide by victims of repeated harassment. Clearly, it’s a serious problem that many teens don’t take seriously.

Aside from banning all cell phone and computer use, what can a parent to do?

Talk to your child and teen, even if they roll their eyes during the conversation. Remind them that nothing in cyberspace is ever really private, that you can’t ever “unsend,” and that it’s virtually impossible to be anonymous electronically. In addition, encourage them to consider the recipient’s reaction to receiving a sexually suggestive text, photo or video, and remind them they shouldn’t give in to peer pressure to do anything that makes them uncomfortable, even electronically.

What if it’s too late? Here’s some advice from Rosalind Wiseman, author of "Queen Bees and Wannabes," and parenting contributor to Family Circle Magazine: If your child sent an inappropriate message, talk to him or her about why it was done. If they won’t talk to you, insist they talk with another adult you both trust. Then, take the phone away for a month as a consequence and to stop the gossip. Trying to fix things via text or calls will likely only make it worse.

If your child forwarded a sext: Hold your child/teen accountable for taking the action of forwarding, even though they did not originally send the sext. Require them to delete it from their phone, from wherever it was posted, and to tell everyone to whom they sent it that your child’s parents know about it. Have them apologize to everyone involved and then take away phone and computer privileges for two weeks.

While there will always be some “new-fangled” technology out there, the fact remains that parents make a difference when we step up to the plate, enforce limits and keep ourselves in the know about current pressures facing our children.

Keeping your cool and keeping informed can help prevent what one site aptly calls a "sextastropy."

Resources

www.thenationalcampaign.org.

www.athinline.org: This MTV site includes a quiz for preteens and teens to test their safety savvy online. Encourage or require your child/teen to take the quiz as part of the responsibility they have for the privilege of using the internet or having a cell phone. Talk about the results together.

wiredsafety.org/fbprivacy/index.htm: This is a step-by-step guide for how to set your privacy settings on facebook to decrease the amount of information shared with outside sites.

www.stopcyberbullying.org/index2.html: This site has lots of information about cyberbullying, and guidelines by age of how to help your child or teen be safer online.

Consider a parental control system, such as the one from SMobile. For under $30 a year, you can monitor texts, set alerts, and more.

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