HICKORY — “They made me feel special.” “Everyone is doing it.”
These are the most common explanations Maj. Joel Shores with the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office hears from teens caught texting inappropriate content, otherwise known as sexting.
In his law enforcement capacity, he has reviewed 700 phones for suspicious content, and 90 percent included nude photos. He’s encountered children as young as 7 involved in sexting.
Those are examples of the information and knowledge Shores shared in Catawba County this week during a parent’s awareness session at Maiden High School.
The goal was to help parents understand what sexting is, apps associated with sexting, why teens sext, and Internet safety, according to a Catawba County Schools press release.
Shores started hosting parent awareness sessions on the issue of sexting in 2015 when he was in charge of the school resource officers in Cleveland County.
“I went in and started interviewing kids and it was amazing what they told me, and now I’ve probably talked to over 5,000 teens within this region of the state,” he said.
“I was at one of the high schools in Cleveland County and a 10th-grader said, ‘Me and my boyfriend had sex and we like to video it. Is that illegal?’ Those are the kind of things they come and ask me,” Shores said.
He called texting a new kind of addiction for teens and said parents can’t monitor their children’s actions enough if they’re going to allow them to have a smartphone.
Teens talk via text
Shores said the issue is less about teens today as much as it’s about the access they have to the world now. Texting is a popular mode of communication for many teens. Some 88 percent of teens own or have access to cell phones or smartphones, according to a Pew Research Center report from April 2015. A typical teen sends and receives 30 texts per day.
Shores was at a middle school, talking to 75 girls and asked them if they had a choice between going two days without food or without their phone which would they pick, and all of them went with their phone.
Jessie Cockman attended the Maiden session and said it is shocking whenever she hears parents aren’t more proactive with this issue.
“I’m not blaming them, but I don’t know how they can be so clueless to what’s going on in their homes,” Cockman said.
If parents are concerned about what their children are doing with their smartphone, she suggests parents simply delete all the apps and reset the phone completely.
She said the event was informative and made her realize parents need to be stricter, and it’s okay to be a “helicopter” mom, hovering around their children’s technology.
Ellis Fulbright has a child in elementary school and another in middle school in Catawba County, and said the issue is a continual struggle in his home.
“My wife and I don’t do Facebook. We don’t do any social media,” Fulbright said.
His children on the other hand are already expressing an interest in it.
His big question was why cell phones are allowed in schools.
“Regardless of parents fussing and crying and all that, if you can keep them from coming to school in a bikini, you can keep them from coming to school with a phone,” Fulbright said.
Catawba County Schools Superintendent Matt Stover said the district does have a technology acceptable use policy but not a policy that only pertains to cell phones. Student cell phones are like any other item brought to school; it is up to the school how they are handled.
“I have heard his presentation multiple times, but the one takeaway I have is the importance of constantly monitoring our children’s technology and the amount of time they use this technology,” Stover said.
Ignorance of the law can be painful
In North Carolina you are considered an adult for court purposes at age 16, and Shores shared the story of a young boy who will be on the sex offender registry until he is 44.
“All he did was send a naked picture of his girlfriend to a friend and got convicted,” Shore said. “I explain that to kids, if you do it, you’re disseminating child pornography. Until we change the law, that’s all we got.”
Ultimately, parents need to be vigilant when it comes to protecting their children.
“Sexting is occurring daily with teens. We are trying to educate the teens about the law because once they are convicted at 16 years of age or older, it is a permanent record,” Shores said. “We are trying not to destroy a kid’s career by charging every case. Sometimes we are left without options, especially when extortion becomes involved from someone involved with the sexting.”
Catawba County Schools will host another parent’s awareness session on this issue with Shores on Thursday, April 19, at 6:30 p.m. in St. Stephens High School gymnasium.