By Rick Dandes
The Daily Item
LEWISBURG -- What is sexting and how to deal with it was the subject of a 90-minute Dragon Parent Night at the Donald H. Eichhorn Middle School on Monday night.
"This is depressing material, and it might be somewhat overwhelming to the parents here," began special agent Craig S. LeCadre, of the state's attorney general office. "But it's important because in this state sexting is a crime, a felony 3, and there is no minimum age. The law reads 'anybody' who commits the crime can be charged. A felony stays on your record. Young kids, teens don't realize just how serious the consequences can be. They don't realize the long-term consequences of their acts."
A combination of the words "sex" and "text messaging," "sexting" is the sending of sexually explicit messages via cell phone or instant messenger.
A revealing study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and CosmoGirl magazine said 20 percent of teens and 33 percent of young adults (ages 20-26) have shared nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves either via text or by posting online.
Girls are culprits
The study also revealed that teen girls are more likely to do this than boys and 11 percent of the teen girls ages 13-16 admitted to sending suggestive photos of themselves.
LeCadre and five other officers in his department speak to about 250,000 children and parents a year, he said.
"I'm out to educate them about the importance of being safe online," LeCadre explained. "But what I have to say is not pretty and it's very, very scary."
Children at a very early age have technical abilities far beyond what their parents have or even understand, he said.
"What these youngsters lack are life experiences; they're naive," he added. "Parents, on the other hand, have all that life experience, but lack the technical know-how. And there lies the rub. Parents simply don't understand or know what their kids are doing online. Kids are tricky. They create aliases. It's all fun when they're young, but there are predators out there fishing for them. These Internet predators, they're professionals by day and monsters by night. We see a lot of that."
LeCadre said he mostly talks to children in the fifth grade.
"It used to be sixth," he said. "I'm not kidding. Kids at this age are already sexting. But even as they do so, they don't understand the dynamic at work here because they're children. And children are going to be curious. You have to understand that kids today are watching what I call train wreck television, where bad behavior rewards individuals and makes them stars. This distorts what kids come to believe is acceptable behavior. Kids are being exposed to far too much too soon."
The main culprits are YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and online game sites such as XBox Live.
"In and of themselves, these sites are harmless and serve a social purpose," he said. "But sexual predators are out there trolling for victims. And young kids are susceptible to their manipulations."
LeCadre called chat rooms hunting grounds for predators. "Any child who enters a chat room is likely to be solicited by a predator at some point," he said. "Your kids, if they're playing online games, could be playing with a serial killer and not know it."
Since 2005, the state attorney general's child predator unit has arrested 299 offenders, with a 100 percent conviction rate. "And that's our unit," LeCadre said.
As part of his warning, LeCadre described the typical predator: "He's mostly male, although we are seeing an alarming trend of female predators. Male predators are often married with children. A professional, upstanding in the community but leading a deviant lifestyle through the Internet."
LeCadre noted warning signs for parents, such as a child who spends an inordinate amount of time online in private and someone having few friends and poor personal relationships who also likes to post videos.
After the meeting, LeCadre reflected on the crowd reaction to his lecture.
"It is very sobering. I admit it," he said. "This is often the reaction I get. You could have heard a pin drop when I stopped talking."
"I gave a lecture about a month ago in a town much like this," he said. "Very rural. I was talking about cyber-bullying. Well, 20 minutes after leaving the school, I got a call from the principal thanking me and asking me to call an eighth-grade student who had been bullied. About a week later he emailed me and said that he was going to kill himself until he met me. Those kinds of things, they make all this worth it."
Meanwhile, as LeCadre spoke in Lewisburg, a similar meeting on the same subject occurred at Mifflinburg Middle School. About 30 people attended that event. The main speaker was Union-Snyder President Judge Michael Sholley.