Teens, Bristol police team up to tackle sexting

BRISTOL — The Bristol Police Department has reached out to some of the county’s top experts on teen behaviors to create an outreach program to counter sexting — the practice of texting naked photos.
The experts are teens themselves.
A cadre of students from the Vermont Teen Leadership Safety Program (VTLSP) at Mount Abraham Union High School is working with the Bristol Police Officer Joshua Otey to create a short public service announcement that could be posted on YouTube, shown in a PSA spot on the local TV news, run before a movie at local cinemas, or circulated in other venues.
Otey said he turned to the VTLSP student group after witnessing an increase countywide in cases involving sexting, especially those in which the photo ended up far from the original sender and recipient.
“Over the last six to eight months, I’ve noticed a big influx of cases that started with a kid-to-kid sexting conversation, but eventually those pictures end up in other places,” said Otey, who’s part of an affiliate of Vermont’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. “So it’s basically the manufacturing of child pornography between kids, but then that picture doesn’t just live with the one recipient. It gets sent to friends, and then it gets posted on the Internet, and then it can be downloaded by other people, including offenders throughout the country.
“We’ve had some cases locally where a local high-school-age girl’s picture ended up half way across the country.”
What most kids don’t understand, said Otey, is that just sending a naked picture of yourself to another teen is illegal (see story on this page).
“The consequences of sexting are much greater than both children and adults realize,” said MAUHS junior Lexi Chickanosky, a VTLSP member. “Once images are sent not only can/will your school, teachers and community see them, but also the nation. There are many sites now that allow for pictures to be uploaded anonymously and shared all over the country. Knowing the consequences would make fewer pictures be sent. Education is key.”
Sharon Koller, VTLSP sponsor at Mount Abe and Student Awareness Program counselor, said that cell phones and computers play a huge role in how students these days communicate.
“I do think there’s a lack of awareness about how risky it is to send something personal, whether it’s a statement or a photo or whatever,” Koller said. “People don’t always think through what the consequences could be.”
Otey said teens have no idea how quickly and how easily an image can get distributed nationally or even internationally across the Internet.
“So it starts as a (circle of friends) sending it to your friends,” Otey said. “But then your friends send it to their friends, and eventually you’re so far removed from the friend circle that you’re just receiving naked pictures of another kid. And that person doesn’t have any personal connection to the actual victim. They don’t care where they put the picture.
“It’s just another trophy item, another baseball card to put out to try to get somebody that they might know’s baseball card.
“It’s scary, and it’s not just locally. Through our investigations for the Internet Crimes Task Force, I’m noticing it’s a nationwide problem.”
As the distribution circle widens, said Otey, an intimate photo that a young person thought he or she was sending to a boyfriend or girlfriend ends up all too often in the collection of anonymous adults. And whereas in the pre-Internet olden times, offenders had to use some ingenuity to acquire child pornography, now it’s easy.
“It’s basically like their child porn is manufactured for them without them having to seek it out, request it or pay for it. It’s just more accessible for them because they’re relying on those adolescents to send it back and forth and then it eventually gets posted.”
Otey said he’s also seeing instances locally of what’s called “sextortion,” where a typically older teen or an adult gets one photo and then uses it to “sextort” a succession of images.
“The person says, ‘Send me more’ and the kid says, ‘No, I shouldn’t have done that. I’m sorry,’” Otey said. “And the other person says, ‘I have this one picture, so if you don’t send me more I’m going to put this picture out to your parents. I’m going to put this picture out to the school. I’m going to put this picture on the Internet.’ And the child actually re-victimizes themselves over and over again and produces more media.”
One of the ideas the Mount Abe teen leadership group wants to get across to their peers is that because these images can last forever, the consequences can be long term and far-ranging. At a recent meeting, the group discussed a PSA sketch involving a young adult going for a series of job interviews and being turned away, until the viewer finally sees that it’s as if that young person has a naked photo of themselves attached to his or her back.
“One of the issues that students deal with sometimes is feeling like it’s a harmless way to share with somebody,” said Koller, when in fact it can cause trouble with jobs or college, friction at home when parents find out, land a student in the legal system, cause embarrassment or lead to “just losing trust in people.”
“Relationships can be effervescent,” said Koller. “Sometimes they last a long time, and sometimes they don’t. And I think whenever somebody’s in the midst of a relationship, they think ‘this is it and it’s forever.’
“And so sharing something that could become permanent in a relationship that maybe isn’t going to continue just has a lot of risks because you don’t know what that person is going to do with it. You don’t know who it’s going to get shared with.
“So it’s a loss of control over something very private, which I think students often aren’t aware of or thinking about.”
As a community police officer, Otey, too, is concerned about the blow to a teenager’s self-esteem that can come when something private goes public.
“In the school environment — before you even consider this type of stuff — we deal with bullying, student suicide. We deal with cutting. We deal with high school dropouts. We deal with teen pregnancy,” Otey said.
“There’s so many issues that we’re dealing with with our children.
“And when you add this mix of now exposing somebody in a naked photo — that’s just another avenue for bullying; it’s another avenue for somebody to evaluate their self-worth. What they did between a friend and now everyone else has it unintentionally. I think that’s a self-esteem killer.
“So now you end up with a dropout, somebody that was successful that might not be successful, might not want to come to school.
“I think there’s a lot of unintended consequences that can start from the snap of a picture.”
A recent study in the UK found that:
•  Sexting is often coercive.
•  Girls are more adversely affected.
•  The peer-to-peer threat is greater than “stranger danger.”
•  Sexting reveals wider sexual pressures.
•  Technology is amplifying the objectification of women.
In his work with Internet crimes against childreninvestigations, Otey says about 90 percent of the images posted are of females, 10 percent of males.
Estimates of the prevalence of sexting amongst minors vary considerably. Some studies have put the number as high as one in five. Others have put the number as low as one in 10.
“Sexting is more prevalent than people think,” said Pierre Cotton, an outreach worker with the state Department for Children and Families out of the Middlebury office. “It’s the new norm with this generation of kids.”
Cotton also stressed that boys as well as girls are being negatively affected.
Parents are an important part of changing these behaviors, said Otey. He noted that as a police officer he’s seen a wide range of responses.
“A lot of parents have been supportive of our program in education and are trying to help their children in understanding all this. But I’ve also received the other side of the spectrum … I’ve had parents tell me, ‘Well, that’s my child’s rights. I’m not going to get involved in stopping them from doing what they want to do’ and basically not wanting to be a parent.”
How to respond to this issue?
Mount Abe’s peer leaders, Otey as a police officer, Koller as a school counselor, and Cotton as a teen outreach worker all agreed that one thing in particular is really important.
Adults needed to be informed and willing to listen.
“The first thing we have to do is acknowledge that there’s a problem,” said Otey. “We have to understand that technology is exploiting our children.
“And we have to let kids know that we understand that there’s a problem. Because if we act like it doesn’t exist, then the kids are going to think that we don’t care.”
“Parents need to have this conversation with kids,” said Cotton.
“Some kids do not really feel comfortable talking about their personal lives and what’s going on,” said VTLSP member Taylor Morrow. “But this issue needs to be discussed, even though it can be uncomfortable for people to address.” 
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].

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