Tuesday, December 3, 2013
Dozens of San Diego County teenagers were caught recently sharing illicit photos of classmates through text messages. We look at how police say parents should react, and one family’s takeaway.
On a November evening in Carmel Valley about 100 parents were scattered through the bleachers of the Cathedral Catholic High School gym. They were there to hear from San Diego Police Juvenile Officer Jordan Wells about an uncomfortable topic: teens texting nude photos to each other.
“We want to get that back to the parent and help the parent understand it is happening and there’s not been one parent that’s told me that they expected their child to do this,” Wells said.
The meeting followed news accounts of more than 20 middle and high school students at seven San Diego schools texting nude photos of themselves or classmates. Sharing photos in this way is known as sexting. And when teens do it — because they’re minors — they’re technically producing, possessing and distributing child pornography.
Wells said students don’t realize they’re committing felonies. They also don’t understand they’re giving up control of their photos.
“They call them trading cards, if that can give you an idea," he said. "So let’s say a young lady chooses to send one to her boyfriend, the boyfriend may or may not right then send it on to someone else. But when they break up and they’re upset at each other, then they go on.”
Just how far the photos can go is disturbing. Wells reported getting calls from out-of-state detectives who had discovered pictures of San Diego teens on the seized computers of pedophiles.
It isn’t clear how many teens are sexting — a 2009 study from the Pew Research Center estimated about 19 percent of kids ages 12 to 17 had sent or received a nude or nearly nude photo. But a 2011 study from the Crimes Against Children Research Center put the figure at just less than 10 percent of 10- to 17-year-olds.
The San Diego Internet Crime Against Children Task Force could not provide local data on teen sexting incidents, but Wells and others said they’re seeing more cases and that parents should take the dangers seriously.
“We monitor the use of everything else we do for our kids as they grow up, or at least we should be," he said. "So I recommend parents set certain guidelines, have the conversation about proper use on the Internet, where they can go, where they can’t go and put filters on their computer systems.”
At her home in Carlsbad a week or so after Wells’ presentation, Kim O'Connell was considering her own family's somewhat lax Internet guidelines.
“There are no rules," she said. "They shouldn’t be on it at 1:30 in the morning, and it should not be the very first thing that they do when they wake up in the morning.”
O'Connell already had brought some of Wells’ message home. Her 17-year-old son, XhiDae O’Tam O’Connell, said the idea of kids his age sharing illicit photos wasn’t new to him.
“It was kind of a weird thing to talk to my mom about; maybe not surprised at it actually going on, but perhaps at the prevalence of it,” he said.
Still, the idea of receiving texts like that himself seemed pretty remote.
“I mean, I’m actually not certain how I would respond to it," he said, pausing. "I know, as of the parent meeting and stuff, how I’m supposed to respond to it, the proper protocol and everything. I’d probably try to do that, but I haven’t thought how I would emotionally respond to that.”
He said that protocol would be to turn off the phone or device he received the message on, turn it over to his parents without showing them the material and that they would then notify police.
In front of the computer in their living room, XhiDae and his sisters help their dad, Denis O’Connell, navigate through photos and videos they’ve posted online.
“I’m not sure I really want to know all of the things that they’re doing,” Denis O'Connell said.
He’s still comfortable relying on his kids to tell them what they come across.
“I think in adolescence it’s important to actually make some mistakes. I think we have a relationship with our kids that they will tell us, or they will outwardly show, and it will cause a conversation to happen and they will tell us where they’ve been.”
So far, that’s worked for the family. When 15-year-old Nineveh told her mom to read the questions anonymous people were asking her brother XhiDae on a site called ask.fm, Kim created an account on the site and said her first reaction was fear.
“The questions seemed to be leaning toward the ... an arena of sexual interest," she said, haltingly. "Things that, quite frankly, the correct response would be: None of your business.”
But her son deflected the questioners.
“I read about four pages of conversation and I just laughed and then I — I actually never went back into the account," she said. "I have reviewed what’s gone on in his page, but I no longer feel the need to ‘jump.’”
That confidence in her own children isn’t going to stop her from amping up her awareness of what is going on in their online lives, Kim said. But whatever action she and her husband take, they agree they don’t want it to be an over reaction.