Students, parents warned about cell phone 'sexting'

Norwich - At a forum Wednesday at Norwich Free Academy, law enforcement officials and a representative from the Office of the State's Attorney ticked off the reasons why youngsters shouldn't engage in the growing trend of sending nude photos through text messages on their cell phones.

Among the reasons they offered to refrain from "sexting," as the practice is known, was to avoid becoming the victim of a predator, being blackmailed, or suffering harassment or exploitation by adults and other youth.

But it was the reason given by Angelo Callis, a family therapist from Norwich Youth & Family Services, that drew the most reaction. Callis said a recent article from the AARP claimed that statistics show seniors are sexting as much as teenagers are.

"So if you're thinking about sending a photo, think about your grandparents naked. If that won't stop you, nothing will," Callis said.

Aside from occasional giggles from those who attended, the forum - hosted by state Rep. Christopher Coutu, R-Norwich - served as a stern warning to parents and students about the dangers of sexting. About half of the 50 people who attended were school age.

Pam Young attended the forum with her daughter, Jamie, 15, a freshman at NFA. Pam said she heard about the forum and thought it was a good opportunity to find out more and for her daughter to share the information with her friends.

"I think all this technology is great. It's a blessing, but it's also a curse," Pam Young said.

Advances in technology have made it easier than ever for anyone to transmit photos, videos or text messages in an instant with their cell phone. Peter McShane from the State's Attorney's office says his office has heard of it happening in New London County, too.

"Kids these days don't know the long-term effects of this stuff. Who thinks a picture of you when you're 13 will be on the Internet forever?" McShane added. "You need to think about the consequences of the World Wide Web. Sometimes I think we forget what WWW means."

Roughly 20 percent of teenagers admit to participating in sexting, according to a nationwide survey of 1,280 teens and young adults by the National Campaign to Support Teens and Unplanned Pregnancy, a private nonprofit organization whose mission is to protect children.

Sgt. James Smith from the Connecticut State Police said sexting has resulted in child pornography charges being filed against some teens. Norwich Police Detective Mark Lounsbury said there is even computer software available that allows cell phone spying, that enables others to access photos or text messages or listen to conversations on your cell phone.

"So even if you think you're safe, it can get out there," Lounsbury said. "It can damage your future, your reputation and your career."

Students were asked to remember that once the image is sent to someone else, they lose control over where it could end up next. They were also told to protect themselves by reporting any nude pictures they receive on their cell phones.

Parents were advised that they should set rules with their kids, like taking the cell phone away at bedtime, which studies say is the most likely time for sexting. Also parents could remove text-messaging capabilities from their cell phone and monitor social networking Web sites their child might frequent.

Callis said communication between parents and their children is important.

"This is a good time for the teens to get their parents up to speed, and it's a good time for parents to catch up with their teens on who they're becoming," Callis said. "It's hard to believe that they're not 9 or 10 (years old) anymore."

a.renczkowski@theday.com

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