Sexting can have serious social, moral, ethical and legal consequences was the central message brought to Panther Valley Senior High School students Thursday morning during an assembly featuring Carbon County District Attorney Gary Dobias, who was accompanied by Summit Hill Chief of Police Joe Fittos.
"This is the most important thing that I want parents and students to understand, is this is a crime that has long reaching social and legal consequences," said Dobias. "Once a photo is sent from a phone or a computer, the person sending it loses all control of it; and once it is in cyberspace, it is there forever and could be viewed by hundreds or thousands of people whom the person did not intend to see it."
Dobias opened his presentation by explaining that "sexting" is a term derived from combining the word sex and the word texting to describe inappropriate photographs sent to people over cell phones or the Internet.
He said the best test for whether a photo is inappropriate would be one that "you didn't want your parents or grandparents to see." Such photos include nudity, partial nudity and other obscene behavior.
When he asked students how many had cell phones, most raised their hands.
Next he asked how many had video capabilities and most of those hands were raised a second time.
He told the students those photographs can have long-reaching consequences that could follow them the rest of their lives. Many times parents and students don't realize that what they are doing is a crime, but when a minor is involved it definitely can have legal consequences.
"Studies show several reasons why students sext," said Dobias, "but the main four reasons are first to show off, second to entice someone to pay attention, third to get someone's attention and last, to prove a commitment to someone."
Dobias said there is a misconception that this is an appropriate form of flirting, when in actuality, it is not and has many long term repercussions.
"This is a dangerous activity," Dobias said.
He reminded students of recent cases not only in local schools, but two well-known ones in the Parkland School District and a Wyoming County school. In the Parkland case, in January 2008, state troopers were sent to the school to remove videos and photos of two high school girls from more than 40 cell phones, although it is unknown how many cell phones actually received the photos.
In the Wyoming County case, three girls were threatened with child pornography charges for partially nude photos that were taken of them and sent to several students via cell phones.
"There are social and legal consequences to this type of activity," he reminded students.
With regard to social problems, Dobias told students that most often such photos taken during a relationship resurface when the relationship breaks down and one of the parties uses it for retaliation. In some cases, he said hundreds or thousands of people may see such photos. He said the intention for taking such photos really doesn't matter, even if it is to show commitment.
"When the photos become public, they can be embarrassing and hurtful," he said.
Dobias said the images could create a stigma that could last for the rest of their lives and jeopardize their ability to get a security clearance or even a job. What is worse, is that the photos can easily end up in the hands of someone the person never intended.
Dobias said that parents and students don't often realize this is a crime, but when it involves a minor in the photographs, it definitely is for someone under the age of 18.
"Sometimes teens don't realize the long term consequences of their actions, so the law sometimes has to protect children from themselves," he said pointing out this is such a case.
Besides the social and moral issues, sexting also carries with it legal issues.
"There are criminal consequences to this activity," he told the students. If the subject of such a photograph is under the age of 18, the crime could be a felony, not only for the subject, but the maker, sender and receivers of such pictures.
"You could be charged with sexual abuse of children, possession of obscene material and criminal use of a communications facility," he said.
It is a crime to knowingly create, send, possess or receive images of nude or partially nude minors. Dobias said experts can analyze photographs and render opinions that are binding as to the age of the subject in a photograph.
While the crime of using a communications facility to commit a crime was originally a tool used to charge drug dealers, the statute also applies to sending illegal photographs using a cell phone, computer or other device.
He told students if the person charged is over 18 he or she is treated as an adult, and if they are found guilty, the details will be published in the newspaper and they will have a criminal record, which could create problems finding a job. In addition, they could be considered a sex offender and would need to register under Megan's Law for the rest of their lives. Also, they could go to prison.
It's as serious for juveniles and even though their identity is protected in the newspaper, the public will still know it happened.
"This crime could follow you the rest of your life," he told the students.
People also offer excuses for the crime such as "I just took a picture of my boyfriend or girlfriend," or "I sent it just to so-and-so and told them not to forward it to anyone else," or "We thought it was funny." Dobias said none of these excuses are a valid defense.
He told the students the best way to protect themselves is not to take photos of themselves. Don't allow anyone to talk them into taking photos and most importantly, keep in mind that once that photograph is sent you no longer have any control over it.
Finally, if you receive such a photograph, erase it immediately.
Panther Valley Superintendent Rosemary Porembo said she actually called and requested Dobias speak to the students as there were some incidents recently, and she felt students needed to understand they don't operate "in a vacuum and are part of a much larger world."
She said she believed students need to realize the role they play in social networking and how it goes out to the broader world which is why she asked Dobias to provide this presentation.