A growing problem with local students using cellphones for bullying and pornography fueled a reality check for middle-schoolers Wednesday.
Kane County Judges Clint Hull and Elizabeth Flood told St. Charles students it only takes one poor decision involving texts or sharing photos and students can face felony charges. It's a problem Hull said could reach the level of drunken driving in the '80s if schools and parents don't educate children about the consequences of abusing new forms of technology.
Text messaging allows bullying to reach students anywhere, all day, every day. Photo sharing applications have increased the spread of lewd images of underage youths. Hull said most young people don't see sharing a nude photo of an ex-girlfriend or boyfriend as distributing child pornography. But those are precisely the situations he sees as the leader of the local courts' juvenile division.
"We see it all the time now, and it's increasing in frequency," Hull said.
Hull and Flood showed TV news coverage of recent episodes across the country where juveniles faced felony charges for doing things on electronic media they never thought would leave a small circle of friends. Flood said students believe phone apps that are password protected or only temporarily show an image guarantee privacy. They are wrong.
"You might have the idea that whatever you do at this age won't matter, that it won't stick to you," Flood said. "Those records you think are temporary actually never disappear."
Photos of underage people drinking at a party, taking video of physical fights between classmates, even not deleting a lewd photo you received as part of a group text can lead to criminal charges, the judges said.
"So much of what we see in court happens because you didn't think before you hit 'Send,' " Hull said. "Once you hit 'Send,' no matter how sorry you may be, it's too late."
The judges advised students never to let someone they don't trust use their phones. Any messages or pictures that contain threats, bullying or pornographic images should be shown to parents and teachers and then deleted.
Flood is the mother of two young daughters. She advised parents to monitor electronic media usage even when children protest. She said some phones can be set up to notify parents whenever their children try to add or delete apps. There are also internet browser apps that allow parents to set age restrictions. Likewise, Netflix and YouTube have age restriction settings parents should lock in to protect their children.
"These days you can Google anything and come up with God-knows-what kind of pictures," Flood said. "Parents have to do the best they can and monitor. In our day, messages took a long time to pass around to anything other than a limited audience. And they could be destroyed easily and didn't last forever. That's not the case anymore."
The program Flood and Hull presented was called "Worries of the World Wide Web." Kane County debuted the program, but counties across the state are now picking it up and debuting their own presentations, Hull said.