A group that advocates for youth is encouraging parents to talk with their teens about the risks of sharing sexual images of themselves or their friends via texts or using apps such as Snapchat.
Diane Sowden of Children of the Street Society said she has seen an alarming uptick in the number of teens caught sexting, and she expects the numbers are far worse than what schools and police are finding.
“What they are doing is illegal under the Criminal Code,” she told The Tri-City News. “A lot of the kids don’t realize that if they take a photo of themselves and don’t share, they have access to child pornography; as soon as they distribute it to someone, a boyfriend or girlfriend, they are distributing child pornography.”
It usually starts with a boy or girl trying to attract attention by sending a naked image of themselves, but the image can quickly spread, and youngsters are often too naive to realize that the moment they push send, they’ve lost control.
“You have no idea where it goes,” says Kev Lescisin, a workshop leader, who says teens recoil at the idea that strangers may be looking at their naked photos but lack the awareness of how images are spread.
He said that they assume they are protected because Snapchat photos disappear after 10 seconds (except for Snapchat stories, which can be live for 24 hours) or they are notified if someone does a screen capture of a photo.
But Lescisin said, “What difference does it [a notification] make? They’ve got that image.”
And images sent maliciously are subject to the strong arm of the law. In Victoria, a girl was convicted of possessing and distributing child pornography and uttering threats after she was caught distributing revenge photos of her boyfriend’s former girlfriend. (It was recently overturned on appeal.)
Sowden’s society established a workshop called Total Respect of Ourselves and Others (TROO) for girls and Being Respectful of Others (BRO) for boys in partnership with the Vancouver Police Department to steer youth caught sexting away from the courts.
TROO teaches about the legal perils of sending naked photos of children under 18, pointing out that youth can be charged under Section 163 of the Criminal Code, and other consequences, such as ruining their own or someone else’s reputation. Workshops are held at the same time for parents and caregivers in a separate room.
Parents are shocked to learn their kids are involved in sexting and the consequences involved, and while Sowden said she is not surprised at adults’ lack of awareness about the issue, she says they need to wake up to their own responsibility.
“You gave them the phone but without boundaries — what did you think?” she said, noting that youth who sext are more likely to engage in sex as well.
Her advice is to be calm and talk about the issue, discussing the pros and cons of image sharing, the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships, and then set up some house rules. For example, phones should not be left to charge in kids’ bedrooms overnight.
If not, children are virtually left alone with a potentially dangerous tool.
“You need to talk to your kids the minute you give them a device,” Sowden said.
The society recently won a national policing award for TROO and in one year has seen 60 kids and their parents or caregivers take the workshop. Eventually, if funding becomes available, she would like to see it expanded to the Tri-Cities.
“We would love to reach out to the local RCMP, we would like law enforcement as a partner,” Sowden said.