Protect Kids Through Education

August 30, 2009
By Pamela Lampitt

Today’s teenagers face new problems completely unfamiliar to their parents. As new technology has emerged, our children now have instant access to worldwide communication – and its associated hazards.

One of the recent problems that has perplexed parents, educators and law enforcement alike is the practice of “sexting” – the sending of sexually explicit photos via the Internet or, more commonly, through cell phones.

Cell phones and computers are standard equipment for teens, each equipped with cameras and messaging capabilities. Yet young people rarely understand and appreciate the potential life changing consequences of misusing this technology.

According to a recent survey, roughly one-in-five teens – including 11 percent of girls aged 13 to 16 – have sent a nude or semi-nude picture or video of themselves to friends or posted one on a Web site. Ultimately, these private pictures see the light of day and have serious ramifications. These teens can quickly become social pariahs, outcasts, and if under age 18, can be arrested for child pornography.

In New Jersey, a 14-year-old girl faces jail and registration under Megan’s Law after posting nude pictures of herself on MySpace. Tragically an Ohio teen committed suicide after pictures she sent to her boyfriend were forwarded to her entire school. One horrific story comes from Wisconsin, where teen boys were blackmailed into performing sexual acts on a male classmate who, posing as a girl, duped them into sending him nude photos.

For many parents, the question becomes: How do you protect your child from a world you don’t know exists? We cannot rely exclusively on government, law enforcement or social networking sites to police the Internet -- the responsibility of protecting our children rests at home.

I have been proactively working on a package of legislation to combat the growing “sexting” epidemic, placing a premium on education and awareness for both parents and their children.

We need to put education and forgiveness before arrest and prosecution. This plan would create an educational program as an alternative to prosecution for juveniles who otherwise could be charged with a criminal offense. Participants would learn about the legal consequences for “sexting” as well as its personal costs – including the effect on relationships, its impact on school life and the loss of future employment opportunities.

Many school districts are already educating parents and students on cyberbullying, proper Internet use and the hazards of camera phones and webcams. But every school district should be offering this information. Raising awareness could hopefully end the belief that “it’s not my child.”

We also would require cell phone retailers to include brochures discussing the consequences of sending inappropriate pictures.

Young people need to understand that sending inappropriate pictures is not only potentially illegal, but can leave an indelible mark on them socially and educationally. Those conversations need to happen between a parent and child and among peers. The law must be used to spark those conversations or, in the worst case, ensure that kids who do make a mistake don’t pay for it in court.

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