The latter, Forrestal warns, is also on the rise due to the spike in “sexting” among teenagers and young adults—in which a youth takes naked or sexually explicit photos of him or herself with their cell phone or computer and sends them to one or more recipients. Though the intention among the senders may not be criminal, sexually graphic images of minors qualify as child pornography—which can result in criminal charges against the sender/recipients and/or result in their registration as sex offenders.
A 2009 digital abuse study by MTV and The Associated Press found nearly one in four teenagers have sent nude photos via text. That figure is closer to one-third among 18- to 24-year-olds.
“[Sexting is] absolutely off the charts, especially on Long Island,” says Forrestal.
It also leads to cyberbullying, explains Nassau County Police Officer John Dockswell. Those sensitive photographs can get passed around to non-intended recipients or plastered across public websites.
“Sexting and cyberbullying are very closely linked,” he says. “For example, let’s just say you had a girl [who] broke up with her boyfriend, the boyfriend sends out that picture, and all of a sudden a lot of other girls will bully, call her a slut or a whore, whatever, to her face, which would be traditional bullying. Well a lot of times they’ll start texting them, which is a form of cyberbullying, which has gotten to the point where some of these kids have taken their own life.”
Such was exactly what happened to 18-year-old Jessica Logan of Cincinnati, who hung herself over the incident two years ago.
Those photographs are permanent, Dockswell continues; they don’t go away.
“These sexting pictures have been called digital tattoos,” he says.
As a member of the Nassau County Police Department’s community affairs staff, Dockswell, a 16-year veteran, tells kids as much. He frequently visits schools throughout the county, educating students and spreading awareness of the dangers posed by the Web and social-networking sites to teenagers naïve to the power of the new technology. He talks about the consequences of cyberbullying and sexting. He emphasizes how Internet bullying negatively impacts both the victim and the bully.
Nassau has a Computer Crimes section as well, he says. A handful of dedicated detectives investigate similar cybercrimes like Suffolk does, focusing primarily on sexual predators and the endangerment of children.
Dockswell and his Suffolk counterpart, Forrestal, both view education as a key component in the battle against cyber-related crimes. Forrestal also frequents schools to instruct students and teachers on Internet safety.
“Our more important mission: to keep these kids from getting sexually damaged, which was happening at a furious rate,” he explains. “We get the kids to protect themselves.”
He also instructs adult audiences, as he did at the Huntington workshop last month, providing parents with a list of websites and Web cam/chat rooms their children should avoid—such as Stickam.com, which records Web room activity, and Formspring.com, which allows users to post anonymously, for example.
Because it’s not just up to the police or the schools to monitor against bullying, cyberbulling and sexting, stresses Dockswell—it’s parents who are the most responsible for their children’s actions. It falls on their shoulders, too, he argues.
“The police can go out there and inform you, the teachers can inform you, [but] ultimately I blame the parents,” he says.
As Dockswell explains, the solution could be as simple as taking away their cell phones. He constantly reminds parents that children don’t have a right to these gadgets just because their children’s friends have them—rather, it’s a privilege.
“Don’t give your kids the technology,” he says, bluntly. And if you do, he adds: “Before the kid goes to bed, or you got to bed as a parent, take the cell phone, keep it in one place, because these kids are texting, sending pictures back and forth [at] 2, 3 in the morning, sometimes on school nights. It’s crazy.
“Why aren’t you monitoring your kids?” he asks.
[The Facebook profile of Connor’s bully, for instance, depicts his overweight tormentor grinning ear-to-ear, proudly wearing a T-shirt adorned with a sexually-explicit message against women. Again, he’s 13.]
In addition to education, authorities also need more laws directed at enforcement, adds Suffolk’s Forrestal, describing Cooper’s recent bills as welcome “additions to the toolbox.” He, like Barouh of BiasHELP, awaits the day cyberbullying becomes specifically included in state legislation.
“Part of the big problem, and they’re working on it, is that as technology has been increasing at a rapid rate, laws have been lagging behind,” explains Dockswell. “We don’t have any sexting laws on the books right now, we don’t really have any cyberbullying laws on the books.”
In the meantime, some Long Island students and advocacy groups have been taking it upon themselves to combat bullying and cyberbullying.
Their tables arranged in a horseshoe around NYS Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City) last month, a group of seventh graders at H.B. Mattlin Middle School in Plainview peppered the politician about an anti-cyberbullying bill he has proposed that would make it illegal to bully over the Internet in New York.
Hannon, who sat in front of a poster declaring “Stamping Out Bullying”—depicting a sneaker smashing a computer screen—faced the students and told them what inspired him to come to their school: their letters.
“Your letters convinced me we needed to set a standard in this state that would deal with cyberbullying,” he said.