Risky behavior: Aiken Public Safety warns against ‘sexting’

With an abundance of smart phones now in their grasp, the amount of teens using their cameras and apps offered on the devices seems to grow year after year.

But with the gadgets, often comes a risky and dangerous side.

Students at a Colorado high school reportedly found themselves on that side of the technology this month after school officials discovered the students were “sexting,” or sharing graphic images of themselves, using a smartphone app.

The case involves an “unspecified number” of Canon City High School students, who were suspended after “exchanging hundreds of explicit photos of students as young as eighth-graders,” according to reports by The Associated Press, which stated school officials learned about the sexting from a tip that came through a state student safety hotline.

Local authorities have since been investigating the case and prosecutors are deciding which students could face criminal charges.

Since the story has made headlines, many have found the case isn’t just unique to Colorado.

The AP reported in a matter of weeks this month, two 14-year-old boys on New York’s Long Island were arrested on felony child porn charges after one was accused of recording the other having sex with a girl; and 16 students in Greenbrier, Tennessee, were charged with sexual exploitation of a minor after exchanging explicit photos on their cellphones.

The issue is also familiar to Aiken authorities, according to Capt. Maryann Burgess, who works in the juvenile division of the Department of Public Safety.

“We deal with it quite frequently,” Burgess said. “We have had cases in the past where an older boyfriend may send a nude photo of himself to his girlfriend that may be a minor and we’ve charged him with disseminating harmful materials to a minor ... we’ve had young kids who share these photos.”

Not every case results in criminal charges, she said; however, several statutes in South Carolina, including the aforementioned, can be applied to similar cases where minors are involved. They include sexual exploitation of a minor and distribution of child pornography.

While Burgess acknowledges her department has dealt with the cases, she stresses it’s important that kids know “not everyone is doing it.”

“Not all kids are not doing it – there are some that are,” she said. “It’s a risky behavior. Most kids are behaving and they are doing the right thing, but there are a portion of kids that we have to deal with that are not using (technology) appropriately.”

Burgess, who conducts Internet training and community education involving social media and technology, said parents should be proactive in learning about smartphone apps, because many are harmful and education is something local law enforcement encourages.

“We do charge in some cases, but it really is a case-by-case basis,” she said. “Our attempt is more to educate.”

The app in the Colorado case reportedly enabled the students to hide the photos in their phones and many of these types of apps are unfamiliar to even the most savvy adults, which is why Burgess believes most people should leave the apps alone.

“It’s craziness. It’s not healthy for our kids to be involved with or adults to be involved with,” Burgess said. “Parents can opt to go to places like netsmartz.org and they can look at tip sheets – there’s always types of resources on there for parents to teachers to kids all the way from preschool age to high school.”

Burgess also recommends parents have the passwords to their kids’ technology and to not allow them to have it if they won’t provide it.

“... It’s a safety issue,” she said. “Maybe this child isn’t doing anything inappropriate, but maybe someone is targeting this child.”

Being proactive also means having the hard conversations and letting children know if social media is becoming a distraction from everyday school activity, schools have the right to discipline such as suspending or kicking them out, she said.

And often, Burgess said, the cases have raised the issue of who should do the punishing: the schools or authorities?

Canon City Police Capt. Jim Cox said after the news broke that authorities didn’t plan to punish every child involved, AP reported.

“We’re not out to hang every kid,” he said. “We don’t want the victims to think they did something wrong, but we do want to know what happened.”

Burgess said locally, the school district and law enforcement works together.

“Here in Aiken, we work very well with the school system,” Burgess said. “We certainly don’t want all things that are done in the school setting to become criminal.”

But ultimately, it takes investigating those involved and whether that includes community members, adults or strictly students at the school.

“Again, it’s case by case,” she said.

Serious consequences could still result, such as requiring some students to register as sex offenders like in the Colorado case, “because students under the age of 18 cannot consent to taking or exchanging nude photos” under the state’s law, AP reported.

For South Carolina, being required to be put on the sex offender registry would also depend on the case, according to Burgess, but it is something children and parents should be aware of because it could affect the rest of a person’s life.

“That is an ongoing, lifetime issue,” she said.

To avoid such affects on their future, Burgess hopes children focus on getting into college and becoming productive citizens.

For those who are thinking about sexting, Burgess said she would advise them, “No. 1, not everyone is doing it and they should steer clear from those that might entice them to do this type of thing.

“It’s not healthy for them mentally, emotionally and certainly (not healthy) for their school performance.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Christina Cleveland is a general assignment reporter at the Aiken Standard. Follow her on Twitter @ChristinaNCleve.