GCP recently attended a seminar on “Texting, Sexting, Facebook and Cyberbullying” conducted by New Jersey Police Detective Sergeant Thomas Rich. Sgt. Rich has worked on the issues of Internet safety for over ten years, and through his company, “Always Connected”, advises law enforcement, educators, parents and children of all ages how to utilize technology in a positive way. Here in part one of our coverage are highlights of his presentation on Texting and Sexting :

Texting: How many text messages would you guess are sent in one month in the U.S.? In June 2008, 75 billion messages were sent in a month, up from 7.25 billion in 2005. According to Sgt. Rich, “Children don’t talk now, they just text”. They can be more comfortable communicating in text form than they are with talking–you will often see groups of kids walking together but with each of them focusing on his or her phone.

Texting is changing the way children interact with friends and peers. Insults are much more easily written and sent than said to someone’s face. Arguments among teens which begin with an exchange of texts can quickly escalate to physical fights, spurred on by the many who are included in the text exchange. Once the teens meet in person, there is often no opportunity to back down or seek alternative means of resolving the issue, since no words need be spoken.

So is the answer to ban your son or daughter from texting? No, as this is unrealistic, as well as quite difficult to enforce. Rather, teach your children that texting is better done in moderation, and here’s the key: If you wouldn’t say it in person, don’t text it or say it on line. Parents should also focus on reminding children to look people in the eyes when they meet them or speak to them–communicating in person is becoming a lost art.

Sexting: For those who may not be familiar with this term, it describes sending illicit pictures or videos (the new trend) over the internet. Sgt. Rich quoted a recent statistic that 22% of teen girls surveyed had sent or posted nude images of themselves in an email. According to a teen profiled in a recent Good Morning America (GMA) segment on this subject, “It starts with a picture, then gets more involved with video”. The pressure on teens to send illicit pictures has been reported to start as early as the seventh grade. After the breakup, the ex sends the pictures around to friends, and sometimes to the entire school and beyond. Boys or girls who sent pictures or videos suddenly find themselves being called “porn star” or worse by strangers in and out of school. Some of them can’t handle it, and leave school or even attempt suicide. GMA profiled a girl who attempted suicide and now counsels teens, who warns would be ‘sexters’: “Not even the chance that it could [be sent around] makes it worth doing”. So why do teens continue to do this? According to Sgt. Rich, they don’t know or believe there is a consequence–they don’t believe that these horror stories could happen to them.

Parents with children in high school and even in the later grades of middle school should have conversations about sexting with them, and try to help them understand its consequences. Asking your child, “Do you know anyone who has received any pictures?” is a good way to begin the conversation, as it moves the spotlight away and might make him or her feel more comfortable talking with you about this. Even if they don’t know anyone now, warns Sgt. Rich, it is not a matter of if they will hear about or get an illicit image of a peer, but when.

In addition to telling your children why taking and sending these pictures are dangerous activities, warn them that in most states it is an actual crime to get this kind of image, show it (especially to another minor), and transfer it in cyberspace. Tell them that if they receive such an image, they should not send it on and should just delete it. You can also tell them that adults don’t always learn this lesson either (see, Tiger Woods, Ashton Kutcher and Brett Favre, to name recent examples), and talk about the damage their actions caused.

Sgt. Thomas Rich is an engaging expert in this field who relates equally well to parents and to children as he talks about the positive uses of technology as well as the dangers it can present. Having done over 100 presentations and spoken to over 30,000 children within the last 3 years, he has become known as the “cyber bullying expert” who is making a difference in the lives of children one school at a time. Go to his website www.alwaysconnected.org for more information or to request a presentation.