Police Talk ‘Sexting,’ Cyberbulling, Warn of Child Pornography
– September 26, 2013 8:52 am
NOKESVILLE, Va. – On Tuesday night, the Prince William County Police Department held a seminar to discuss digital safety, “sexting” and cyberbullying. Officers James Conway, Joshua Peters and Matthew Martz and Sergeant D.M. Smith delivered one clear message to parents throughout the event: be wary of what your children are doing online.
Conway said that internet and new technology shouldn’t be looked at as a bad thing, however, he said that bad decisions can lead to lasting consequences.
“I have a rule that I tell my kids and students at the schools. It’s simply this: Whatever you don’t want everyone to see or know, do not put up anywhere.”
The officers referred to a study on teenagers’ blogs released by Georgetown University. The results showed that more than half of high school students aged 13-18 revealed their contact information (61 percent) and location (59 percent) on an online medium.
To get a better idea of what students are sharing online, three-years ago, Conway went undercover on Facebook, creating a fake profile page and adding Prince William County students. Within 24 hours, he had 11 friends. Today, the profile has over 2,500 friends. He said the frightening reality is that not a single one of the students know his true identity, but decided to add him anyway.
“They all think I’m this person I pretend to be but I’m not,” said Conway. “If someone is your friend, your privacy settings don’t matter anymore.”
Conway said, on average, Facebook changes the privacy settings every three or four months. By default, these settings are oftentimes defaulted to public viewing.
“What you think you have private at one point, in three or four months from now may not be anymore,” said Conway. Further, he said these privacy issues are not limited to solely online mediums, but also include cellphone use.
The presentation featured a short news-clip that portrayed how simply uploading photos online can reveal a person’s exact location. “Geotagging” is defined as the process of adding geographical information to various forms of media. Conway says that unless the location settings are turned off, everything that person does can be tracked through geotracking technology.
“With these smart phones, by default, every time you take a picture it puts an actual pinpoint coordinate of where you are when you took that picture,” said Conway. He says that with these location features, something as simple as taking a picture of what you ate for breakfast can lead to additional information for potential predators.
When dealing with online media, the police officers recommend the following:
• Do not share your password, unless it is with your parents
• Stay up to date with continuously changing privacy settings on social media
• Time does not equal trust or knowing a person, be careful what you are revealing online
• Do not reveal personal information and turn off any location or geotagging settings
The majority of the presentation focused on the growing issue of “sexting” among juveniles, which is defined as the sending of sexually explicit photographs or messages via a mobile phone.
What may seem harmless in the eyes of participating teenagers, could lead to a detrimental outcome for all parties involved.
“If you take a (sexually-explicit) picture of yourself and you’re under the age of 18, just by taking that picture, you’ve now manufactured child pornography, which is a Class 6 felony” said Conway. “Then, every time you send it or show it to somebody, you now have distributed child pornography, another felony.”
Conway added that one of the problems is that the current child-pornography laws aren’t up to date with technology. The present laws make no distinction between adults and juveniles who make, send, receive and possess sexually-explicit images of minors.
“Those are the only laws we have to go by, there are no separate laws,” said Conway. The Class 6 felony charge carries a minimum of five years and a maximum of 20 years in prison, regardless if the case involves an adult and a minor or two minors.
The Prince William County officers discussed three separate cases that involved charges having to do with sexting and child pornography charges. The most recent involved Prince William County high school girls, in which a student posted an inappropriate photo of the other student to her Facebook account as an act of retaliation.
Martz says that the picture was posted on Facebook for no longer than 5 minutes, but within those few minutes, the photo was already seen by all of the Facebook followers and had been forwarded to at least 18 identified individuals.
“The original student that posted the image and other student that screenshot the image both received 100 hours of community service, were banned from social media for a year, had to undergo a mental health evaluation and had to pay restitution for 18 phones.”
“To replace an iPhone is $500, so to replace 18 of those iPhones, that’s quite a bit of money.”
In a separate incident, Conway said a high school girl came into his office to register as a sex offender. By federal and state law, a sex offender is required to register within the county and notify local law enforcement before attending any public or private school.
“She hadn’t even turned 16 years of age and she’s a registered sex offender. How do you go through high school like that?” said Conway.
“With technology, we’re all playing catch up” said Sgt. Smith. “People are finding new ways to use technology to commit crimes.”
Sgt. Smith added that there are a growing number of companies who possess software that can decrypt the pixels of an image to identify images that contain underage children. He says that information is then sent to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) and can be forwarded to law enforcement.
The presentation also touched on “cyberbullying,” a growing epidemic involving the use of internet and related technology to harass, threaten, or harm by a minor against another minor. Conway says that according to data collected in 2011, 160,000 children in this country do not go to school every day for the fear of being bullied.
If your child is sent a sexually explicit message or is a victim of cyberbullying, law enforcement recommends you:
• Do not respond to the message
• Save any messages that can be used by police
• Tell a parent or trusting adult