VIRGINIA — Wristbands and keychains being distributed to area youth are printed with a message: “Think B4 U Send … Now Matters Later.”
It is also the message of a new initiative of the Sexual Assault Program of Northern St. Louis County. The sexting awareness program — called “Now Matters Later” — addresses the ramifications of sexting for underaged youth and urges kids to think before they send nude or explicit images.
Not only are there legal and psychological consequence to sexting, but the act can ultimately affect a young person’s future, said Pia Starkovich, education coordinator, who provides the program presentation to youth on-site at the sexual assault program’s headquarters in Virginia.
There is also an educational outreach component of the program, facilitated by Assistant St. Louis County Attorney Leah Stauber, who offers a presentation entitled, “Making Good Choices: Sexting, Cyberbullying, and Internet Crimes” at area schools.
The term “sext” has been around since about 2005, and since then, sexting has been a growing concern as more and more kids are feeling peer pressure to send sexually explicit messages, photographs or images via mobile phone or digital device.
A sexting study analysis, published one year ago in the Journal of the American Medical Association, showed that more than one in four teenagers reported that they’d received a sext, defined by the study as a sexually explicit image, video or message that is sent electronically.
The study consisted of an analysis of 39 previous studies with 110,000 participants, split between girls and boys ages 11 to 18. The average age was 15.
About one in seven reported sending a sext. The authors noted that 12 percent indicated they had forwarded a sext without consent and 8.5 percent said that a sext of theirs had been forwarded without their consent.
Starkovich said kids often shrug off the idea of sexting repercussions. But what happens now can affect a kid later.
Nude or explicit images can continue to circulate long after they were originally sent or obtained. That can affect future scholarships, financial aide, and employment, she said.
The “now” can be devastating enough.
Take for instance the case where a minor sent a sext to another minor who then threatened that if she did not send more, the original image would be circulated to other kids.
That is just one example of a case Jeanne Olson, crime victim coordinator with the Sexual Assault Program, has seen. Children as young as 11 have reported being a victim of sexting and have sought assistance with the program, she said.
Often there is a nonchalant attitude about sexting among youth, Starkovich said. Kids will say that images disappear on a messaging app, such as Snapchat. But a person can take a screenshot, she noted.
Nothing is ever temporary. Not to mention, in order for sexting to be considered legal, it needs to be performed between two consenting adults.
While sexting has been an issue for a while, the laws have not caught up to technology, Olson said. In Minnesota, sexting falls under possession and dissemination of child pornography.
That is a felony per Minnesota Statute 617.247, said Stauber.
Under Minnesota law, it is a crime to make or direct a child younger than 18 to engage in the making of any sexually explicit, nude or suggestive photography or video recording. It is also a crime to possess or distribute those materials. Even if a person does not pass the message to others, he or she could be found guilty of possessing child pornography.
“We are increasingly seeing cases where teens send nude photos of themselves via electronic devices. In some cases those photos get forwarded on to others or get posted on the Internet and can have devastating effects on the youth involved,” Stauber said.
“We partnered with the Sexual Assault Program to provide programming for youth who engage in this behavior, and to assist us in offering educational presentations to local schools.”
Stauber said she has presented so far at five area high schools. “We can provide presentations to any school in Northern St. Louis County,” she said. “We generally focus on grades nine to 12, but because some schools are seeing sexting going on with middle school children, we have some schools include seven to 12.”
The presentation will be offered to grades seven to nine, and then to grades 10 to 12 on March 25 at Mesabi East.
One of the first schools Stauber visited earlier this year was Northeast Range in Babbitt.
The school resource officer set it up, and Babbitt Police Chief Chad Loewen also attended the presentation, said Principal Kelly Engman.
“It was very eye-opening for the students,” she said. “The kids responded positively.”
And “they were able to follow up what was covered with the school counselor.”
Stauber “was a wealth of knowledge,” Engman said, noting that Olson and staff from the Sexual Assault Program also were there to provide information and resources for the students.
“The goal of the sexting presentations is simply education and prevention,” Stauber said. “Making children aware of the legal, social, and emotional consequences of sexting will hopefully decrease the number of cases being seen by schools and the County Attorney’s Office.”
Sexting is probably more prevalent than officials realize, Starkovich said. “It’s a tough one to report.” Even students negatively affected by sexting fail to tell anyone because “they are afraid they will get in trouble,” she said.
Michael O’Bryan, who works in victim/witness services with the County Attorney’s Office, runs the Youth Accountability Program — otherwise known as the Juvenile Diversion Program.
It provides an alternative to formal prosecution of juvenile cases. O’Bryan said Stauber “who’s a prosecutor in our office, sends me referrals on juveniles who she has identified as appropriate” for the program. “These are often first-time offenders who have committed offenses ranging from theft, underage consumption, underage smoking, curfew and other offenses. Also within these referrals are sexting cases.”
O’Bryan first meets with the juvenile’s parents or guardians to go over requirements of the diversion program, which include community service, restitution, apology letters, and participation in educational programs.
“In the case of sexting, once I get a commitment from them I reach out to Jeanne and Pia (at the Sexual Assault Program) … so that they can meet up with the youth and begin their process of setting up some educational sessions.”
Starkovich then provides the Now Matters Later individualized sessions, which include a PowerPoint presentation that focuses in part on consent and respect. She teaches kids that they “need to respect each other and not ask another person to send (sexts).”
She also holds sessions with youth who have been victims of sexting.
O’Bryan said sexting cases he has handled have been with youth ages 15 to 17.
“The laws need to change to catch up to the modern times,” Olson said. But preventing sexting in the first place is a key step. Olson urges parents to also get involved.
“They need to check their kids’ devices,” she said.
For more information, contact the Sexual Assault Program of Northern St. Louis County at 218-749-4725; or call or text: 218-780-7227.