A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that children ages 8-18 spend 53 hours a week using entertainment media, or about 7½ hours per day. The same study found that only 30 percent of students have time limits for television, computer, or video games.
Acronyms and abbreviations have become their language, and while many parents have caught onto the technology and language, others have not. Many of these school-aged children have no idea what kind of trouble they can get into.
This school year, speakers from Oregon City Schools, the Oregon police department, and the Lucas County prosecutor’s office gave a presentation to Clay High School in which students were broken up into groups to discuss sexting, social networking, and the threat of sexual predators on the internet. Two other presentations last spring and fall were to students at Eisenhower Middle School.
“When I talked to the kids I asked how many have cell phones and I thought I was going to get laughed at,” Oregon Schools technology director Nathan Quigg said. “Ninety-eight percent of them raised their hands and when I asked who doesn’t have them, a handful said they don’t.”
The dangers exist in public and private schools. They recently spoke to a Catholic grade school in West Toledo because seventh graders were texting. In one of those presentations a University of Toledo child psychologist was present, discussing how the internet can hurt children long-term.
Earlier this month, speakers presented an open forum to 40 residents, mostly parents, at the Clay High School library.
The speakers say they are interested in continuing the presentations as part of an outreach effort. Included are power point demonstrations, news clips, and public service advertisements.
Teenagers sending sexually explicit photos or text messages have become a time-consuming problem for police, prosecutors, and educators. It often leads to disaster.
“Sexting is taking texting to the next level, if you will,” Robert Miller, Lucas County assistant prosecuting attorney, said.
Included in an NBC Today Show news clip was a story about a teenage girl in Cincinnati who used her cell phone to send her boyfriend nude photos. When the relationship ended, the boyfriend forwarded the photo to every student in the school district. The girl was outcast and became “tormented,” the speakers said.
At age 18 after graduating from Sycamore High School, the girl attended the funeral of a friend who committed suicide, and she in turn went home and did the same thing. The girls’ mother discovered her daughter’s body hanged in her bedroom with the cell phone on the floor.
“Interestingly, it’s girls with low self-esteem who think the way they are going to get a boyfriend is sending them a picture, and a lot of times it is their breasts,” assistant prosecutor Jennifer Lambdin said.
In another situation, two teenage students videotaped themselves having sex, and it was broadcast to the entire student body at Bowsher High School.
Oregon police detective Janet Zale has played a role in numerous Lucas County investigations.
“She calls herself the geek and she is, but she is the good geek,” Miller said, “Anytime we have a case that involves child pornography, she can help us and she can access computers and cell phones and things like that which contain data. She’s a wonderful expert that we have here in our office in Oregon.”
Digital gadgets are taking over kid’s lives, the speakers said, and it’s hard to police. They cited a Toledo Blade article (Coming of Digital Age, Jan. 28, 2010 issue) that noted in 2008 just 33 percent of 16-year-olds obtained a driver’s license.
“They don’t need it,” Quigg said. “Their social existence is this (digital media) — that’s what they need. They would rather save their money for I-Pod apps than for a new car.”
This provides for plenty of opportunities for sexual predators surfing the internet. They are looking to begin grooming and enticing your child.
Zale said predators can be any age, profession, male or female, and added that being a predator is not the same as being a pedophile.
“Some of your best rules for keeping your child safe on the internet are the rules for keeping them safe in the world, or in the city,” Zale said. “You don’t go up to someone and say, ‘Nice butt.’ You wouldn’t do that. Respect other people online just like you would want to be respected — the Golden Rule.”
Zale said she understands why teenage girls can be tempted.
“I totally see myself as that girl — to always be wanting the older boyfriend that nobody knew about at that age. I can see how so many girls are trapped by that.
“Grooming is an online enticement and the goal for the predator is to get to know your child,” Zale continued. “It will start with them meeting in a chat room or somewhere and it will start with a little relationship. If you have a vulnerable child, it’s just great for them to go along and keep the relationship going until they say, ‘Oh, I think you’re really pretty’ or ‘I think you’re really exciting.’ You think it happens just to girls, but it happens to boys, too.”
“The best thing you can do is talk to your kids,” Dean Mandros, chief of the Lucas County prosecutor’s office, said. “Computers are not going to go away — it’s just like telephones for most of us growing up. It’s just a way of communicating with each other. They have all sorts of technology available to them and they are going to use it. You just have to teach them the dangers and whatever they put online can come back to haunt them someday.”
Just having a sexually explicit photo on your computer or cell phone can result in a criminal conviction. Mandros, who has prosecuted sexual abuse-related homicide cases, said sending a nude photo of an underage teenager with a cell phone can result in a felony conviction and having to be registered as a sex offender. Zale added that employers today typically “google” a job candidate during the hiring process.
“If you record any sexual activity, that’s called pandering and that’s a crime,” Lambdin said.
Part of the problem, prosecutors said, is that laws have not caught up with technology.
The prosecutors said they are trying to change the law that would result in some of these juveniles being charged with an unruly misdemeanor, which would not require them to register as a sex offender.
“What I’m trying to use now is a Safe School Law, saying what they did was disrupted school activity, which is a misdemeanor,” Lambdin said. “The last thing I want to do is miss the kid that maybe this is the beginning of the problem. What you don’t want to have happen is you miss the kid, then they molest a kid, and then you’re saying, ‘Wait a minute — they were doing this a few months ago.’”
Lambdin is playing a role in the effort to get laws caught up.
“The only way to do this is to scare them. Put the fear of God into them so they know what they shouldn’t be doing,” said Lambdin. “We don’t want kids to have to register but we also don’t want them to think it’s not a big deal. We’re still getting sexting cases that are going on, and there is one going on in Oregon right now.
“You don’t want your kid not to have the technology. You don’t want your kids to not be able to get a hold of you when they are stuck at school. There are good things with cell phones.”
The prosecutors suggest routinely inspecting your child’s cell phone, even if it means reading text messages and seeing who your child has communicated with.
“To be honest, at 16 or 17, I can’t imagine my mom taking my cell phone and looking at it, if I had one, but I honestly believe that’s the only way you can deal with it,” Lambdin said.