Text Messaging, Students' Internet Activities Worry Law Enforcement

By Guy Leonard, County Times

HOLLYWOOD, Md. (April 3, 2008)—Some of the on-line images Deputy First Class Angela Muller flashed up on the screen at the Margaret Brent Middle School library included a young boy at the school who took a picture of himself goofing off in class.

Not exactly serious, Muller said, to the small group of parents there trying to learn more about local children’s Internet habits. But then the images of what local students were posting on-line became even more concerning.

One girl, who was just 12-years-old, Muller said, had posted a close-up shot of herself wearing dark sunglasses on the Internet focusing on her cleavage that suggested she was much older than she really was.

“Mom did not know about this picture,” Muller told the gathered parents. “Do you think she was happy?”

Another young man, just a 6th grader Muller said, had his own personal Web page posted identifying himself as a “playboy” with other descriptions laced with profanity.

He noted that he’s had trials and “fallen down like Niagara,” but “he still gets back up like Viagra.”

And then there was the text messaging that has become so poplar; all a student needs is a cell phone and another person’s phone number to send either a message or even a photograph.

The text messages have led to a phenomenon known as cyber-bullying, said Muller, who is the school resource officer at both Margaret Brent and Leonardtown middle schools.

Cyber-bullying is the repeated and willfully harmful transmissions of messages electronically.

But it doesn’t stop there.

She’s seen how rampant text messaging and the exposure young children give themselves on the Internet can set them up as targets for those who want to take advantage of them.

“This is what predators are using,” Muller said of information and images children post on-line on Web sites like MySpace.com. “It’s not only people in our county who are accessing these pages.”

She called the trend “alarming.”

Muller rated the problem of cyber-bullying over text messaging in the county schools as high on a scale of one to 10.

“I’d say it’s about an eight,” Muller said of the problem. Students have become so adept at text messaging, which can simply cause disturbances in class, they can key in messages without looking at the keypad on their phones.

Another alarming trend is students sending what amounts to images of child pornography to each other via their cell phones as part of the dating scene.

Schools Superintendent Michael J. Martirano said that school administrators have been instructed to be watchful of Web pages that expose children in county schools inappropriately.

“If they learn that it’s questionable they actively get involved and inform parents,” Martirano told The County Times. “We’re taking an aggressive stance on this [cyber-bullying and questionable content.]

Martirano called some of the activities students engage in on the Internet and over cell phones “rather scary… I’m very disturbed by it.”

That disturbing trend moves to relations between male and female students.

Muller said that once where boys expected girls to perhaps give them a kiss after a date, the now expect, in some cases, the girl to take a picture of their bare chest and send it to their boyfriend.

“They want to see skin,” Muller said during her presentation, noting that the girl was humiliated after she and her boyfriend broke up and he sent the image to his friends as a measure of revenge. “She sent this to him… and now 30 people have this image on their cell phones.”

And this isn’t something she’s encountered in high school but in middle school, Muller said. Up to this point she said she’s seen about a dozen cases just like it.

“If I’m experiencing it here, I know it’s happening throughout the county,” Muller told The County Times. “It’s crashed down on us hard.

“They need to know that that’s not OK [sending pictures of child nudity]… they need to know it’s a crime.”

Children often don’t understand what they’ve sent is causing them to commit a federal offense, Muller said, though she said that the sheriff’s office does not want to lock any of the students up, nor does the state’s attorney’s office want to prosecute such young offenders.

But Muller warned parents that criminal penalties for sending such content could still fall on their children.

“If your child takes a picture of one of more body parts and sends it on their cell phone… they’ve just distributed child pornography,” Muller said. “They can be charged with that.”

Muller said that many times parents are completely unaware that their children are engaging in or suffering as victims of cyber-bullying or transmitting inappropriate images of themselves to each other or over the Internet.

Yet it lies with the parents to become more involved with their child’s Internet activities to help stop this alarming trend, she said.

“The parents are completely stunned that their child is doing this,” Muller said. “But the photo says it all.

“We don’t know how to solve this except that the parents get [more] involved. I hope they are shocked and appalled; that’s what it’s going to take for them to realize what’s going on.”

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