As a technology professional one of the hardest parts of the job is balancing our students’ access to information and technology for educational purposes with the potential threats and temptations that pique our students’ curiosity. While we abide by our legal responsibility to filter the internet for inappropriate material as mandated by the Children’s Internet Protection Act we often struggle with the boundaries of our responsibility to filter information. Should we filter Facebook? YouTube? Flickr? GMail? Where do we draw the line? At what point do we begin to block access to materials that have legitimate educational value on the chance that they might offer access to some inappropriate materials? These are tough decisions and we grapple with them often.
As a school we have blocked access to sites such as MySpace due to the perceived threat of exposure to predators. We understand the need to limit our student’s exposure to external threats such as those posed by potential predators on MySpace, but now we face a new range of threats that are not easily blocked. These threats are internal; they come from inside our firewalls and content filtering. They can occur 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days year. The latest and greatest threat to our students is themselves.
Sexting is the “in” term. Thanks to some highly publicized cases in Barnstable and Holbrook, most people have a familiarity with the term. But for those that don’t, sexting is the sending of sexually explicit or inappropriate photos from a cell phone. Often the recipient of the photos will then forward them to other contacts creating a chain letter type spread of the pictures. What may have started as a personal and private communication between two people quickly can turn into a mass distribution of inappropriate materials. To make matters worse, if the subject of the photo is under the age of 18 years old the photos qualify as child pornography under current laws. That means anyone sending these photos can be charged with distribution of child pornography and anyone receiving them can be charged with possession. If convicted this could lead to our students and your children being labeled as a sex offenders for life.
Often our initial reaction to threats such as these is to blame the technology. That was the reaction many had with MySpace, block it or ban it. However in truth we must begin to deal with the crux of all of these problems, poor decision making. Deciding to meet with stranger you met online or forwarding explicit pictures of yourself is a personal decision that can not be blamed on a webpage or cell phone. Children today need to understand that these types of decisions can have drastic and far reaching effects. These are real life decisions that have real life consequences. Sexting has led to criminal charges and in some drastic cases suicide. Middle School students may be young and immature but if we are to entrust them with the responsibility of technology they must be expected to make proper decisions when using it.
Sexting in most cases is not a school issue, it is a home issue. The schools will be developing a technology safety plan to begin to educate all our students (K-12) on responsible use of technology. We will educate our students on proper use and safety but we can not do this alone. Your children are connected nearly every minute of every day. You control their access and a cell phone, in the right hands, is a wonderful device. Be aware of what they are doing and how they are using it. Take the time to discuss these issues and the potential consequences with your children. Help them understand that poor decisions may have a serious impact on their lives. Simply blaming the technology is too simple a response; it doesn’t address the fundamental issue of why a child would decide to engage in this behavior.
If you feel you would like to learn more about sexting or internet safety please visit the following web sites.