Storm Lake Police Detective Bre Nieland and juvenile court officer Audra O’neill spoke frankly with classes, after seeing an increase in such cases in the local system.
In one national survey cited, over 40 percent of children had been exposed to sexually-explicit messages by the age of 14. By 13, almost a fourth of responding young people had been asked to send or post nude photos. In another survey, 20 percent of teenagers admitted to sexting.
Often young people may believe myths surrounding such use of devices, Detective Nieland said – that it is okay to send explicit messages and photos to someone they are dating, that there are no repercussions to sending nude photos if you take them yourself, or that posted messages can be easily deleted.
Simply put, taking or possessing nude photos of anyone under the age of 18 is illegal.
Even if photos or messages are delated after posting, they do not necessarily go away, the presenters reminded students. They can surface years later and cost people relationships or jobs. “There is no way to get it back once you hit ‘send’,” O’neill said. Nieland added that police try to track and eliminate shared improper photos when they become aware, but 95 percent of the time, it is impossible to do so completely. “A photo can live forever online,” she said.
Prank photos taken in a restroom, locker room or shower of an exposed fellow student is considered child pornography, the presenters stressed. “It is not just against the law, it can affect a person emotionally,” O’neill said, noting that in some cases around the country, young victims have been driven to suicide by cyber-bullying messages or posts, or intimate messages or posts being shared around.
At middle school age, few students have met a permanent soulmate, and when there is a breakup later, there is always a chance the former boyfriend or girlfriend could share intimate messages and photos that they have in their phone or laptop. It is a common enough practice that a name has emerged for it – “revenge porn.”
The detective said that she has seen cases in the middle school where students have set up fake social media accounts that can be used to bully others. “You have another four years together. You’ve got to take care of each other,” she said, encouraging students to respect one another. “It’s appalling how you treat each other sometimes.”
“Sending, saving, asking – those are the three things that get you in trouble,” Nieland told the students, pleading with them to take time to think before posting or messaging. “Before you hit send, hit pause – what is this going to do to someone else or myself?”
Social media posts can also be haunting. Today, in many cases employers look up the accounts of job applicants to assess their character. For certain careers like law enforcement, deep background checks are standard.
Detective Nieland posed scenarios where a boyfriend or girlfriend asks for an improper photo, claiming that it is out of love, or “just this once.” Many of the students responded that they would refuse to be pressured. “If it is that easy, why are we seeing this happen several times a week?” O’neill pressed.
Online relationships can also be a threat, the presenters noted. Cases have happened in Storm Lake where young people send an improper photo to someone they met on line portraying themselves as also being teenagers. In one case, the person on the other end convinced a student to send a nude photo, them responded by dumping explicit child pornography onto the student’s computer, and manipulating the student to continue sending improper material under the threat of exposing them.
In another case, the romantic “teenager” on the other end of the conversation turned out to be a 50 year old man in Mexico. After gaining the young person’s confidence and receiving nude photos with his ruse, he demanded a $2,000 payment or would expose the student’s photos. When the student could not pay, the man sent the teen’s nude photo to the teen’s employer.
In another case in a nearby community, a teenager was convinced to meet an online acquaintance who was supposedly a 16-year-old girl at a local hotel. When the boy arrived, he found a 50 year old man from another state waiting.
“These are people who are masters of using your inner weaknesses to manipulate you,” O’neill said. “It’s really scary to see how some people are preying on young people.”
Sometimes well meaning young people face consequences, too. One boy had sent a nude photo to a girlfriend, asking her to return the favor. Soliciting photos of an underage person can result in felony charges. The boy faced charges for Dissemination of Obscene Materials, was placed on probation, and his family has had to drive him weekly to Sioux City for mandatory treatment for over two years. He now waits to see if he will be required to register as a sex offender for years to come.
Another local teenager had dreamed of a career in the military, but after being caught for a single improper online action while in middle school, is still facing the consequences years later. From age 18 to 25 he has tried to apply to every branch of the service, only to be told by all that they will never take anyone with a sex-related crime on their record.
“Most didn’t know any better,” O’neill told students. “No one teaches you this in elementary school.”
What should a student do if they are sent pornographic material? Go immediately to a parent or teacher, who should then contact law enforcement, Nieland advised. “Don’t delete it. If I can’t figure out where it came from, I can’t stop it from circulating.” Reporting immediately will also help protect the young person from blame.
Through the county attorney’s office, law enforcement has access to sophisticated computer equipment to trace improper material. “Everything you type into a computer or a phone leaves a footprint – phone calls, pictures, videos, email. Even if something has been deleted, the footprint is still there, and there is no telling who has seen it. Hackers may be going through my phone right now,” she told the students.
While most of the students expressed that they have nothing to hide, when asked if they would be comfortable if the contents of their phones were suddenly shown on the screen in the classroom, they fell silent.
The detective said she currently has cell phones from four students at the middle school which are being searched for evidence in cases. “The things I’ve seen shows me you guys can’t be responsible with phones. I’m talking to you because I want to keep you safe, and keep you safe from having to face charges,” Nieland said.
“I’d love to be put out of business,” the juvenile court official added.