County Attorney, Sheriff, FBI Warn Parents of the Dark Side of Smartphones, Social Media
Wednesday, April 05, 2017 9:27 AM
A practice some young people seem to view as a harmless exchange between a boy and girl can turn into a lifetime of pain and suffering, destroying reputations, costing people jobs has area law enforcement officers and prosecutors on alert.
Scott County Attorney Ron Hocevar spoke to a crowd of over 100 people on the perils of sexting and distributing intimate photos last Wednesday evening (March 29) at New Prague High School. His office is considering criminal charges against Shakopee High School students involved in distributing sexted photos of children.
Last Wednesday night (March 29) at New Prague High School, Scott County Attorney Ron Hocevar, County Sheriff Luke Hennen, FBI Community Outreach Officer Kathy Hotakainen and Jessica Harstad, a graduate of the FBI Citizens Academy, warned over 100 parents and students of the potential dangers of potentially dangerous uses for smartphones and social media.
They warned parents of the dangers of sexting, an act that begins as an ill-advised exchange of an intimate photograph sent via text message or some form of social media between a girl and boy. But if that image is disseminated to others, that simple act of questionable judgment could easily lead to criminal charges, destroying reputations, humiliation or a felony charge and label of predatory sex offender that could follow a person around for a lifetime.
A child pictured in a sexted image may not think much about it when they are 16 or 18 years old. But when they are 20 and seeking a job, a Google search of their name could bring that long-forgotten photo back to life, Hocevar said.
For a person convicted of distribution of child porn, a court order to register as a sex offender can impact a person’s life for many years, he said.
“This is serious stuff,” Hocevar said. “It’s not fun and games.”
It Can Happen Here
Think it can’t happen here? Hocevar’s office is currently considering felony criminal charges for distribution of child pornography against Shakopee High School students. The office has also reviewed sexting allegations involving students at Prior Lake High School.
And if that’s not local enough, the Belle Plaine Police Department has dealt with two individual cases of sexting within the past year, said Chief Tom Stolee. Both cases involved children. Neither case reached the level worthy of consideration of criminal charges, he said. He said the sending of the intimate photos was consensual and there was no dissemination. But that doesn’t minimize the potential danger or severity of sexting, Stolee said.
“We got on it pretty quickly,” he said.
When students involved in sexting are still legally children, the act of disseminating an intimate image of a child is considered distribution of child pornography, a severe felony.
To the parents and students, Hocevar stressed once a photo is sent from one person to another, however innocently, the sender surrenders all control over the image. He said the photos, one passed around, can be used against the sender, forcing the sender to send even more lurid photos under the threat of releasing the images on multiple Web sites. In most cases, the senders are girls and young women.
“They know it’s wrong but they have no idea how wrong it is,” Hocevar said, adding the youngsters don’t fully understand the lifelong implications of disseminating child porn.
Hocevar cited surveys indicating more than half of college students questioned about sexting admitted sending explicit photos when they were under 18. He said as many as 33 percent of young adults in their 20s have sent sexted images. One boy under 18 admits having received sexted message. Forty percent of adult men admit having received a sexted image.
Sending the image is not a crime, Hocevar said. Neither is receiving it. The crime occurs, he said, when the receiver resends it. Youngsters, especially girls, are too trusting, Hocevar said. Sexting, to many young people believe, keeps the spark in a relationship. He called it the new love letter.
“(Peer pressure dictates) If you’re not sexting, you’re not part of the cool crowd,” he said. “It’s the new flirting.”
Hotakainen said 88 percent of intimate photographs dispersed via the Internet will eventually end up on child and adult porn Web sites. And if that’s not unnerving enough, a photo taken with a smartphone, with its GPS system enabled, will allow a computer savvy person to find the location the photo was taken, she said.
She also encouraged parents cover the camera lens on laptop computers in children’s bedrooms. Hackers, Hotakainen said, can activate a laptop’s camera and watch children in their bedrooms while the computer appears to be off.
Harstad warned parents to be leery of the information their children share on social media. Posting information on social media about where a child works, where they go to school and information about where and who they hang out with can give predatory adult can masquerade as young people.
Hocevar challenged parents to keep a close watch of their children’s smartphone use. “Unfortunately,” he said, Hocevar gave his own daughter a smartphone. It comes with strict rules. Mom and dad can see it whenever they want, he said. They get to know all passwords. A lack of cooperation results in the phone being shut down, he said.
“Nobody wants to do this. But it’s the job we took when we decided to have kids,” Hocevar said. “Be a parent. Don’t be a friend.”
Keeping a Wary Eye
Sheriff Luke Hennen said children can use well-intentioned apps -- Snapchat, Vault, Kik, Twitter and ooVoo -- to send sexted messages, videos for cyber-bullying. He offered parents tips to recognize places in the phone system where images or messages can be hidden. Parents who aren’t comfortable using technology can call a deputy or a police officer for help.
But sexting can also involve adults. A new law in Minnesota makes it illegal for adults to distribute without permission intimate photos of one another to other people under the state’s so-called “revenge porn” law. Prosecution could be either gross-misdemeanor or felony levels.