Oxford OPP charge two teens with possession and distribution of child pornography

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Two Woostock-area boys — one 13, one 14 — face rare charges for their ages in a "sexting incident" police say began with a young girl looking to share nude photos with her "so-called friends."

Young people sending sexual texts and photos on smartphones isn’t new.

But with that growing trend often a source of bullying, it’s also become a digital scourge.

The question is, how has it come to this — that kids barely out of elementary school could be facing criminal charges for behaviour their generation is repeatedly warned against?

Oxford OPP said the allegations date to between Feb. 1 and March 5 and that the kids knew each other.

"Those images were shared amongst other people," said OPP Const. Stacey Culbert.

"An adult received a complaint from an adult who had seen the pictures and had knowledge of what was going on," she said.

The problem, some observers say, is that digital technology is so seamlessly folded into everything young people now do, many have no idea what they’re doing can be illegal.

One expert said the number of reports to cybertip.ca,which processes tips about online sexual exploitation of children, has gone up 10% since 2006.

"But what we know is, we really only see the tip of the iceberg," Noni Classen, education director at the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, said Monday.

"We know from speaking to kids that a lot . . . are dealing with this without ever telling an adult about it."

The centre tries to educate kids about what’s legally OK and what’s not and what to do when they find out about sexting, through a guide on peer exploitation and websites such as needhelpnow.caand cybertip.ca.

"I think a lot of times kids don’t know that they’re breaking the law when they’re engaging in this kind of behaviour. When we talk to kids, kids want to know about that," Classen said.

Better awareness is needed of "the serious consequences" that can accompany sexting, Culbert said.

"Meaningful conversations need to take place with your child," she said.

"As a parent, it’s scary," said Tom Vassos, a Toronto professor and social media expert.

A recent study published in the Journal of Pediatrics surveyed 400 Grade 7 pupils — 17% were already sending sexually explicit text messages and 5% sending photos.

"It’s scary to see it at that level and at that age," Vassos said.

While teens may think they’re just having a private conversation, what they don’t realize is that any explicit material sent of anyone younger than age 18 is considered child pornography, Vassos said.

It also raises privacy issues: Photos are stored on a server and can get intercepted while being transmitted.

"Kids aren’t thinking about that when they’re sending images," he said.

"This stuff may have all happened before, but it happened over a telephone conversation or face-to-face conversation. But now . . . we’re using a medium that is recording, distributing, storing that information. That didn’t happen with those phone calls you did in the past."

For a generation raised with the technology, making that distinction can be tough, Vassos said.

Kids can quickly feel like they’re losing control when they’re victimized by sexting, said Classen, citing "the humiliation, the devastation" that can result.

In 2012, a case that drew international headlines, 15-year-old Amanda Todd of British Columbia killed herself after posting a video detailing two years of torment by bullies sharing nude photos of her online.

Culbert said youth often don’t know what they’re getting into when they share photos online.

"Sometimes their faith can be misplaced and often images end up in the wrong hands," she said.

So how to drive home the message to teens?

Vassos said it’s all about education, by parents, schools and friends.

"The message has to come from many different places," he said.

With files by Heather Rivers, QMI Agency

IF YOU NEED HELP

Resource websites:

* protectchildren.ca

* cybertip.ca

* needhelpnow.ca

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