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Teenagers sexting can lead to trouble with the law
Pictures can be used against sender, which is called "sextortion
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In a world of selfies and smartphones, the way children communicate with each other is changing rapidly.

And it's causing some to unknowingly commit felonies.

Hall County Solicitor General Hon. Stephanie Woodard told parents at a recent workshop hosted by Hall County Family Connection Network that it is important for them and their teens to realize that what's often referred to as "sexting" is considered child pornography in the eyes of the law.

Woodard said she visits schools regularly to educate teens on subjects their teachers don't address.

Students know that when they send a photo of a private area of their body, it's supposed to be private, Woodard said.

"But they don't know that is distribution of child pornography," she added. "Even if a 14-year-old girl is sending a picture of her own breasts, she is committing the felony of distributing child pornography."

Anyone older than 16 who receives that image is then in possession of child pornography and can be prosecuted. And even apps like Snapchat, that seemingly delete images, won't protect them from the law. Those images are still stored on the phone and can be accessed through the metadata.

Furthermore, if it is received by one person and redistributed to five or six friends, that's five or six counts of distribution of child pornography, and each person it is sent to is in possession of child pornography.

Gainesville Police Department's Cpl. Kevin Holbrook said students can also be charged with harassing communications and enticing a child, based on what they communicate with their phones.

"Many people don't realize it is not necessarily only on pictures," he said. "Actually explicit words, lewd messages or anything enticing that minor is also included in this."

Holbrook said if a parent finds a lewd photo or message on their child's phone and wants law enforcement's help, there are a few things to keep in mind.

"From a law enforcement standpoint, do not delete the message," Holbrook told parents at the recent workshop. "We would want that preserved for evidentiary purposes in the investigation. And we are talking about an investigation - these aren't just necessarily kids being unruly. We're talking about crimes, and that's the part we as law enforcement cannot make clear enough to parents."

Woodard warned parents that, while they can call law enforcement, once they do, the officers are required by law to investigate fully.

"I hear people say a lot, ‘I called the officer because I just wanted to talk or for him to talk some sense into my children,'" Woodard said. "He is a sworn police officer, sworn to uphold the law. So if he sees what is a violation of the law, he does not have the authority to disregard that."

That said, Woodard said when such a case makes it to her office, she often chooses to send the involved child to counseling in lieu of prosecuting.

"I think the very first thing parents should do is take possession of the phone, and then really figure out what the extent is of what your child has been exposed to," she said.

Often, the pictures can be used as weapons against the sender in what's sometimes referred to as "sextortion."

Woodard said parents today are in "reaction mode," but such behavior can be prevented in the first place.

Valerie Simmons-Walston, dean of student success and retention at Brenau University, said parents should be proactive about protecting their children.

"Let me say this, you are paying the bill, so one thing you need to do is look at that phone," Simmons-Walston said. "Privacy should go out the window. In fact, your child should expect you to look at that phone."

Woodard said her children "expect to get audited."

Her children's phones, tablets and computers are password protected, but they are expected to give their parents their passwords.

Everyone in her home plugs their phones in the laundry room at night, so no technology goes into the bedroom. She and her husband abide by this rule as well so the whole family "unplugs" from technology together in the evenings.

Another thing parents can do for their teens is simply talk to them.

"I had a conversation with a teen recently who said she expected there to be ‘bases,'" Woodard told The Times. "They'd heard that old-timey tale of how intimacy progressed. ... But pressure over texting has changed that progression."

Woodard said her office will always answer parents' questions, but there are also other resources in the community, including the Children's Center for Hope and Healing.

"We'll actually talk with the parents first, have them come in to tell us what's going on," said Betty Guilfoile, executive director of the Children's Center. "From there, they have a couple different choices, including a Parent Education Program, for parents whose children are involved in some of this type of behavior."

Guilfoile said they can also seek family therapy, or the child can enter the Boundary Program.

"That is a 12-week educational program where we talk about, ‘What are the laws? What are the rules? What are the boundaries?'" she said.

The program teaches children how to say no and how to have greater respect for themselves and for others, something parents should do at home as well.

"I don't know a child who is immune to this," Woodard said. "... It is a part of their consciousness and a part of their world. It is in your kid's life, so now it's just a question of whether you're going to talk to them about it or not."