At what age should kids be warned about sexting?

Doctor: Any child who has a cell phone should be warned of sexting dangers

By Elizabeth Campbell - Reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A disturbing trend among teens and children continues to grow: "sexting," or sending sexually explicit photos or text messages.

Just this week two local men were arrested on sex charges involving children under the age of 16, and one of the girls was talked into sending nude pictures of herself.

Parents may only think of teens sending nude pictures, but children young enough to play on playgrounds are doing it as well. A police report from a recent incident involved an 11-year-old girl sending naked pictures to a 19-year-old, who is accused of later raping the girl.

With children getting cell phones younger than ever, social media is right at their fingertips, and experts say that is a huge part of the problem.

"When you send something to the Internet and cyberspace world, you lose control of it, and what you put out there could always come back and haunt you," said Dr. David Chesire, a former school psychologist who now works for UF Health.

It's unsettling for parents to think about their children sexting. Lori Sabins said her 14-year-old daughter recently received an inappropriate picture from a friend. She said she's thankful she prepared her daughter for situations like this.

"She actually came to me, fortunately, and told me, which was great," Sabins said. "I know it doesn't always happen."

In Flagler County, 19-year old Karl Westgate was arrested Thursday, accused of raping an 11-year-old girl he met on Facebook. In Clay County, 20-year-old Dylan Fillmer was arrested Monday, accused of having sex with a girl under 16 four times in one night. He also met his victim on Facebook, police said.

Of the more than 130 million child pornography images examined since 2002 by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, one in four were originally posted by minors themselves.

And according to a 2014 survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, nearly 40 percent of students said they had either sent or received a sexually explicit image of themselves.

The consequences of sexting can be far worse than being embarrassed in school. Teens can also get in trouble with the law or pictures could end up in the hands of sexual predators.

Friday, a federal judge sentenced Christopher Cloonan to life in prison without parole for producing child pornography. He was convicted of several sex crimes dating back to 1991.

Chesire said as embarrassing or uncomfortable as it may be, parents have to talk to their kids at some point about what's appropriate.

"Parents are going to know their families better than anyone else and will know when their kid is ready to have the conversation," Chesire said. "Certainly if a kid is walking around with a cell phone, they need to have a conversation."

Sabins, who also has an 11-year-old daughter, said as much as parents may trust their children, they still need to keep tabs on their cell phone and online activity.

"I definitely think people need to be the parent and just realize no matter how much you're friends with your child they're still children," Sabins said.

Chesire said if your children are old enough to know what social media is, they're old enough to have that conversation. He said if you're having trouble figuring out how to initiate it, speak with fellow parents, friends, pastors, or even a psychologist like him for advice on where to start.  

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