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Our View: Parents can prevent ‘sexting’ pitfalls

Published: Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013 5:30 a.m. CST

Blackmail was a popular plot device in films noir of the 1940s and ’50s. One or more characters would learn some embarrassing or damaging information about another, obtain some way of proving it, and then use that information to extort them.

In the black-and-white movies, though, the blackmailer would usually have to find out or secretly document some damaging details. In the Internet age, people turn the information over willingly, only to later find themselves in a compromising position. Often, the victims are young people. Sometimes, they are minors.

With the proliferation of camera-equipped cellphones, the practice of “sexting” has become common among members of the Internet generation. It’s also given rise to a fairly common scenario that’s been played out countless times around the country, including here in DeKalb County: A person sends an nude, seminude or otherwise suggestive photo of themselves to someone else. That person later turns on them and uses the embarrassing material as leverage to blackmail them.

Some victims summon the courage to go to police; who knows how many others acquiesce to the demands of the person blackmailing them.

In July in DeKalb, one victim did go to police, who later charged a 21-year-old Streamwood man with intimidation, stalking, harassment by electronic communication and illegal posting on an Internet site.

Police said the man wanted a nude photo shoot with the victim.

In a case in August, DeKalb County sheriff’s deputies arrested a 31-year-old West Chicago man who was charged with solicitation of child porn after the parents of a local teen reported that he had requested a nude photo of their daughter, which she sent him.

People who came of age before the digital era took hold might find this behavior puzzling, but for some who have grown up immersed in the virtual world, sexting doesn’t seem so scary. A survey of more than 900 high school students published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2012 found that 28 percent had sent a naked picture of themselves through text or email.

Thirty-one percent said they had asked someone to send such a photo. More than half said they had been asked to send a nude photo of themselves.

Some of the activity probably occurs within dating relationships, but it’s not uncommon for the photos to remain after relationships have soured.

Those who forward the material on to others – and many no doubt do – also risk running afoul of the law. An Illinois law that took effect in 2011 says that a minor caught sending an indecent photo of another minor can be brought before a juvenile court to determine whether they need counseling or court supervision, and can be sentenced to community service.

The American Academy of Pediatrics offers a long list of tips for parents who want to keep their children from falling into the trap of sexting.

The academy recommends that parents learn about the technology themselves. It’s important not only that they monitor their children’s online activities, but that they are honest about doing it. Get children talking about their Internet and social media use, so you have an idea of what’s going on in their virtual lives. Emphasize that everything sent over the Internet or via text message can be shared with the entire world, so it is critical that they use good judgment when transmitting images and pictures.

Certainly, today’s youth face a different landscape than their parents did when it comes to potential pitfalls of social media, the Internet and sexting.

However, engaged parents can help to protect their children from decisions they later might regret.

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