Feb. 24 2010 12:00 AM

Teens, cell phones and sexting

Two weeks ago, 13-year-old Dewitt Junior High School student Alexsandra Bonene got her own cell phone — a Metro PCS Freeform — and her parents laid down one main rule: No sexting.

“My parents told (my siblings and me) to never even think about doing it,” Bonene said. “They also mentioned that kids that do sexting are bad influences, and we should stay away from that kind of situation. I know for a fact I’m never going to do that because I have full respect for my body.”

This phenomenon known as “sexting,” where explicit photos taken with cell phone cameras are text messaged, is an increasing issue among teens. Last January, several 6th grade students in DeWitt were reported to have been allegedly sharing explicit photos over their cell phones. And in December State Sen. Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing, requested judiciary hearings in the Legislature to discuss the appropriate legislative measures on sexting.

“Sexting and cyberbullying have become rampant problems,” Whitmer said. “Prosecutors don’t always know what to charge. They are using pedophile and pornographer laws. We want to make common sense laws on the books.”

In January, Dewitt Police Chief Larry Jerue gave a presentation at the school to explain the consequences of sexting both statistically and by the law, Dewitt Junior High School counselor Sherri Drayton said.

“Jerue approached it from both angles,” she said. “The students were shocked when they found out the consequences and that the police can pull school records.”

Drayton feels that more awareness needs to be taught about cell phone use and the emergence of new technologies in society, including on the Internet.

“It’s a great, great tool, there’s so much knowledge,” Drayton said. “But there are also lots of consequences.”

Along with the presentations, Drayton and other counselors also talk to the students about bullying in general. Teens are taught about Internet safety and appropriate Web sites.

Jerue said the presentations he does at the school give a law enforcement perspective to the issue, and has been very well received by parents.

Sexting “is difficult for law enforcement to monitor. We can’t really do anything other than educate the kids and tell them the real dangers associated with it,” Jerue said.

Drayton said the education of teens is helpful, but parental awareness also needs to grow.

Jerue said one main concern the police have with sexting is that sending a photo as a joke, a dare or flirting can end up in the hands of a sexual predator.

“Once it’s sent there’s no control over where it goes,” Jerue said. “Technology is only going to increase. I hope all kids get the message, but I’m not naive enough to believe it.”

Lansing attorney Devon Glass said that this type of communication is private between the people involved. The victim’s private life is exposed, and they are punished criminally, Glass said.

“Sexting is this generation’s rock ‘n roll,” said Glass, explaining how people were shocked at Elvis and his radical hip motions in the 50s. “We survived that, and I’m pretty sure we can survive this.”

Glass said if teenagers choose to share nude photos with a boyfriend or girlfriend, it shouldn’t be such a big issue.

“The person sending the photos is being victimized twice. The people taking the pictures are charged as well as the ones disseminating them — I find this appalling,” Glass said.

DeWitt Superintendent Tina Templin said reviewing the code of conduct and holding parent forums are two ways the school system is trying to help parents and teens with the sexting issue. With the help of area law enforcement, students get a sense of the consequences that can arise from sexting.

“They talk to the parents about what the law says, and how the student may be asked to respond in court systems,” Templin said. “We also help parents with how to talk to their kids. Parents and adults don’t know everything about technology, which is why they need to be informed and talk to their kids.”

Jerue said Michigan law states that anyone age 17 and up sending any type of pornographic material, even if it is of them, by cell phone or computer to someone underage faces up to seven years in prison and a $50,000 fine. Anyone caught possessing or transmitting photos of this nature can get a four years and a $25,000 fine.

Ingham County Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings said he dealt with a sexting case at the end of the last school year involving a young girl in high school who sent a picture of her breasts to her boyfriend. The photo somehow got circulated, and escalated from there.

“The girl’s parents are the ones who filed the complaint,” Dunnings said. “I told them I couldn’t just charge the boy. It was either we charged everybody or nobody.”

The students got a warning, but Dunnings said if this kind of behavior keeps up, someone is going to get in trouble.

“It’s not a joke. If they’re going to do it, they need to at least wait until they are of age,” Dunnings said.

Whitmer has been working on a legislation that will provide more education for teens, tools for parents to take a more active role and guidelines for schools and law enforcement to handle cyber bullying issues appropriately.

Whitmer wants to get the input from prosecutors, parents and schools, as well as from the people who design the technology, on how to handle these situations. She said schools and authorities play an important role, but the primary responsibility is on the parents.

“Parents need to be more tech savvy,” Whitmer said. “There’s a lot of stuff you can do on phones that parents don’t know about. For example, you can actually turn off the picture function on a cell phone.

"If they get into trouble with it, it can keep these kids from getting into college, from getting a job. And we want to make sure they are aware of that. Many states have started to take action, and I don’t want Michigan to be last.”

Whitmer said she would like to get the legislation done this spring.

As sexting becomes an issue, Jerue believes it is a societal problem, and it isn’t just the teens that are causing it.

“We mirror society here,” Jerue said.

“Everyone has a cell phone. The more people who can be educated the better, but only time will tell.”