Programs Alert Young People to Dangers of 'Sexting,' Internet Postings

Article excerpt

Patrick Nowak said he's often surprised by images his friends share online or via cell phones.

"I've seen certain pictures that I think, 'I would never put that up,' " said Nowak, 17, a senior at Pine-Richland High School. "You don't know who the pictures will turn out to go to."

District attorneys and lawyers' groups have put together programs warning teens about the pratfalls of risque or harassing Internet or cell phone postings.

The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association's educational program, "Let's Talk About Sexting," warns against sending sexually explicit material via phones.

Volunteers from the Allegheny County Bar Association are teaching students about "Staying out of E-trouble." Adapted from a program devised by Superior Court Judge Joan Orie Melvin, it contains information about cyber bullying and online intimidation.

"One of my daughters was moving into college, and her roommate's admission was rescinded because of inappropriate postings on Facebook," said Orie Melvin, 53, who has six children. "Kids think it's private, but nothing on the Internet is private."

A 2008 survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found that 20 percent of the more than 1,200 teens surveyed had posted online or electronically transmitted sexually explicit photos of themselves.

Under Pennsylvania law, possessing or distributing a sexually explicit photo of someone younger than 18 is a felony, and anyone found guilty can be required to register as a sex offender under Megan's Law.

A Wyoming County prosecutor threatened to file child pornography charges against three teen girls after photos they took showing two wearing bras and another topless were distributed to classmates. A federal district judge in April ruled that no charges were warranted because the pictures didn't display sexual activity.

In January, six Greensburg Salem High School students were charged in juvenile court with child pornography offenses for sexting. The teens were sentenced to community service or a curfew and didn't have to register as sex offenders.

A key part of the "Let's Talk About Sexting" program is to let teens know about long-term consequences, said Michael Piecuch, executive director of the state's district attorneys association.

Representatives of Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.'s office have talked to teens about cyber safety for years, said spokesman Mike Manko.

"Probably the most surprising thing is that you're talking to groups of bright, intelligent high school students, and they literally can't grasp the idea that something they put on the Internet is never going to go away," Manko said. …