At a recent assembly of 5th grade students (age 11) I asked how many of them have devices like phones, tablets or iPods that they can put apps on. ¾ of the students raised their hands. Then I asked how many of them talk to other people through those apps. Half raised their hands. In a room of 250 11-year-olds, 125 of them talk to other people online. Does this surprise you? Here’s another fact… did you know that the average age-range of youth who send inappropriate content over the internet (“sexting”) is 10-15, with the most common age being 12! Let me say that again another way. The most common age of student sending sexual content over text, video or wifi app is 12.
These teens and preteens communicate with their friends about everyday stuff. But sometimes that branches out into flirty or attraction conversations. Social media is so commonly used by this generation that they do not think about the infinite extent of their reach. They send a picture to a friend, that person may send it to five others and eventually it goes to hundreds of strangers. The internet also creates an opportunity for youth to “meet” people all over the world. And especially for a kid who feels disconnected or hurt by their local peers, talking to strangers around the world is tempting, easy, and gives an artificial sense of anonymity and safety. But they are often unaware of what they could actually get in trouble for. Here are some obvious and not so obvious things kids under 18 can get in big trouble for in many states.
- Sending a picture or video of themselves naked, partially naked, or in suggestive poses.
- Receiving a picture or video from someone else even if they didn’t ask for it.
- Asking someone for a sexual picture, even if the person doesn’t send one.
- Having a sexual conversation via message or text, even without video or pictures
- Spreading rumors about someone else’s sexual behavior via message or text
- Sending or receiving a sexually explicit picture or video of someone else
This is not an exhaustive list but my point is that while many students might think they are flirting, or joking, or that they have deleted videos or messages, this information is stored and recorded and often sent on when they don’t even realize it.
What kind of trouble could they get in? Well, in many cases, when a person under 18 takes a picture of their own naked body, it can be considered production of child pornography. If they text or message or email or video or find some other way to send that inappropriate picture to someone else, that can be considered distribution of child pornography. If a student has a sexual picture on his phone or computer or device but it is of someone he doesn’t know, the student can get in trouble for possessing pornography. If a student is contacted by an adult and engages in conversation and exchanges sexual content, the adult will get in trouble, but the student might too.
Many of these are considered felony charges, often at the federal level. Students can go to jail or be placed on probation. Some will be required to register with a sex offender list. In addition, even if the indiscretions are not picked up by law enforcement agencies but are addressed in the school system, students can lose their scholarships and be banned from playing school sports because of character guidelines. It has also become common practice for employers and colleges to research a potential candidate’s online presence and not offer them acceptance if they have a questionable history.
It is imperative that parents be aware of what their child’s online behavior is. Know what apps are out there and who your child is talking to. Here is a (short) list of common apps that people use to share this kind of information:
- Facebook Messenger
- Google Hangouts
These applications are not evil in nature. Plenty of people use them appropriately every day, myself included. They just need to be used with discretion. Please share the above information with your child and discuss the risks involved. If they want to talk to strangers online, find out why and discuss ways to stay safe. Most importantly students should be made aware of the potential consequences of online behavior they may assume is no big deal because “everyone is doing it.” Remember, this is not just high school students.
The most common age of kids sending naked and sexual content is 12. Twelve. Sixth Grade.