NCSO speaks to teenagers about sexting

Photo by Howard Reed

Photo by Howard Reed

COVINGTON -- Some Newton County students faced some shocking facts this week.

During special class meetings, Newton County Sheriff's Office Investigator Sharron Stewart presented Alcovy High School students with some information about sexting, cyberbullying and Internet safety that could change their lives forever.

"It's important (to speak to students about) this because there has been such an increase in the number of deaths and suicides among kids that it's alarming" as a result of sexting and cyberbullying, Stewart said.

She said students have access to high technology now and don't know how to use it properly.

"They don't realize the consequences," she said.

Alcovy High School Principal LaQuanda Brown said it's important for students to hear more information about sexting and cyberbullying.

"Many students do not understand the dangers and/or the consequences of such behavior," she said. "The purpose of bringing the presentation to the students of Alcovy is to educate our population, so that they will make decisions that they, as well as their parents, can be proud of at all times. It is the desire of the Alcovy High administration to ensure that we prepare our students with skills and knowledge that will prepare them for our very global society. As our students are digi-natives, they must also be equipped with information that will help them to make safe decisions."

During the presentations, Stewart told students that risks associated with using online technology like Facebook, MySpace and YouTube, among others, can make them a target for bullying, sexual predators, criminal activity, missed educational and employment opportunities, damage to reputations and the spreading of false information.

"You put something on Facebook and it spreads like a wildfire," she told students on Tuesday morning.

She explained to students that they could get in trouble legally for participating in such recent cyber trends like sexting and cyberbullying.

Sexting -- the sending of sexually explicit texts or nude or inappropriate images of minors by minors shared through cell phones and other electronic devices -- has serious consequences and is illegal, Stewart said.

"Even if it's not of you, and you send it (inappropriate pictures) ... you could be charged with producing or distributing child pornography," she said. "And if you keep it (on your cell phone), you could be charged with possession."

She told them that they could be charged with a federal offense if the photos travel to another state, and if someone is convicted of any such crimes, they would have to register as a sex offender.

"It's not something we like to do because a lot of these kids don't realize the consequences of their actions," Stewart said.

Nonlegal consequences include emotional and reputation damages and having the images distributed and archived forever, she said.

"You can never get them back once you put them out there," she said, adding that such acts have led to bullying and then suicide in kids as young as 8 years old. "The reality is online actions equal offline consequences."

Instead of sending along such photos, if a student receives a photo or learns about such an action, they should tell a parent or an administrator at their school, she said. Sometimes serious offenses should be reported to law enforcement agencies, which victims should not fear, she said.

Stewart also told students about the dangers of cyberbullying -- when children, preteens and teens are threatened, harassed, humiliated or embarrassed using the Internet, cellular phones and other digital technology. She said she has heard of teens creating bogus profiles of another student on Facebook and other sites and ruining the victim's reputation.

"Everything you do on the computer, whether you think it is or not, is logged," warned fellow NCSO investigator Brandon Raines. "Every key stroke you make (on a computer or cell phone) -- we can find it. Don't ever think it's a secret."

Stewart encouraged students to keep information like their cell phone numbers and addresses, most pictures and sensitive family information private.

"There's a lot of responsibility that you have with all of this technology," Raines added. "Be careful and mindful of what you do and say about people on a computer."

Stewart said she has given similar presentations to church groups and other organizations and is available to talk to interested individuals or groups.