Sexting and the Digital Age

When it comes to protecting children from criminal offenses, parents should look to social media.



In November 2015, local media outlets reported the shocking details of an incident at Tredyffrin/Easttown Middle School, where four boys ages 11-15 used social media to distribute pornographic photos and videos of a 13-year-old girl two of them had dated. After a six-month investigation, Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan charged the boys with harassment, illegal use of a communications facility and transmission of obscene materials. 

At a press conference announcing his decision, Hogan addressed the epidemic of sexting, strongly suggesting that parents should actively monitor their kids’ phones. A year later, Hogan isn’t backing away from his stance. “We need an occasional public airing of this problem,” he says. “Upper-middle-class parents tell you it’s not going on, and they aren’t comfortable addressing it with their kids. If you stick your head in the sand, something is going to explode.”

Delaware County District Attorney Jack Whelan feels the same way. Parents routinely insist that their kids would never take nude pictures, let alone send them. They’re shocked when Whelan and his staff show them the hidden apps through which their kids can chat.

“Vaulting” is another little-known technique. Innocuous-looking apps appear to be calculators or other tools, but typing in secret codes reveals hidden caches. “We find photos, videos, texts and emails—even those that have been deleted,” says Whelan. “You can smash a phone, put it in water—we can still find what we’re looking for.”

Computer-forensics analysts assigned to the Delaware County Internet Crimes Against Children task force are experts at unearthing evidence. While ICAC does get reports from parents, teachers and coaches, its primary responsibility is to handle tips that come from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Those leads are about children under the age of 18 being photographed nude or partially nude, usually engaged in sexual acts. Tips take the form of emailed reports, often accompanied by still images or video. “Some are more horrifying than others,” says Whelan. “We’ve even had images with infants.”

Delaware County’s ICAC is the clearinghouse for all of NCMEC’s Pennsylvania tips—more than 3,000 every year. The Delaware County task force investigates those in its jurisdiction. This year, 54 ICAC cases were opened in the county. Other leads are sent to more than 200 law-enforcement affiliates throughout the state. 

It takes only a few days for ICAC to locate the device from which the images were sent and execute a search warrant for the home or office of its owner. If a child is in imminent danger, the case gets fast-tracked. That’s what happens with so-called “traveler” cases, in which an adult has gone outside the county to meet with a minor. Those relationships are initiated online—on Kik, Snapchat, Facebook—by sexual predators looking for victims. “There’s a whole world of sickos out there trying to contact our kids,” Whelan says.

This year, there have been six “traveler” cases in Delaware County. Like the T/E case, they begin with teens engaging in sexual behavior through texts and emails. They don’t see anything wrong with it; taking and sending pictures is a part of life. But selfie culture has segued all too easily into pornography. Taking or possessing nude photos or videos of someone under 18 is either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the age of those involved. If images include sex acts, it’s a felony. Punishments vary, but charges stay on offenders’ records. 

Authorities don’t want to charge kids with crimes that can impact the rest of their lives, but it’s their job to protect them—even from one another. “We’re talking about a vulnerable teenage girl who doesn’t want her picture to go out to the whole football team or for an employer to find it during a Google search,” says Whelan. 

What will stop the problem is parents monitoring their kids’ phones more closely. But the message isn’t getting through. “The hardest part is educating the parents,” Hogan says. “They often think it’s the schools’ responsibility to educate the kids about this. It’s not. Home is the first line of defense.”

To learn more, visit www.itsonus.org and www.notalone.gov.

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