A smartphone in every pocket has made it harder than ever to keep teens out of trouble.

Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office Det. Kasey Ward said a combination of monitoring and education by parents is crucial to preventing the kind of cases he sees, ranging from date rape to child pornography charges related to sexting.

He described teenagers sending nude photos and sexually explicit messages as an “epidemic.”

“It’s become common,” he said. “They have the mindset of ‘everybody does it now.’”

The consequences can be grave, however. The “cute boy” on the other end of the social media app could actually be a “50-year-old pervert,” Ward said, who could use the photos to blackmail the teen into worse things, or post the pictures on a child pornography site. He said when he checks a national database to find the victims of images pulled from locals’ phones, sometimes he finds the photos are up to a decade old and still circulating.

“Once you put it out there, once you hit send, there’s no taking it back, and God only knows where it will end up,” he said.

Even if teens are trading sexually explicit photos with someone who is known to them, Ward said there are plenty of teenage boys who delight in showing private nude photos of their girlfriend to their friends. He said teens often think they’re safe sending photos over apps such as Snapchat, which ostensibly deletes the photo after a few seconds, but it doesn’t prevent people from taking a screenshot.

At best, Ward said, such an incident can result in a loss of reputation. At worst, the photos could be used as blackmail after a breakup or could cause multiple teens to end up as registered sex offenders for life.

“If a girl sends a sexually explicit photo to a boy, she just manufactured child pornography, he just received it and if he sends it to his friends he distributed it,” Ward said.

He said any minor with a smartphone or other internet-connected device should password protect it in case it gets lost or stolen, but parents should “absolutely” have the password and make it a practice of asking their child to hand over their phone for random searches.

It’s important to open every app, Ward said, as photos can be hidden under icons that look like a calculator or other unassuming app. And the child should know that if they’re caught deleting messages or their browsing history their phone will be confiscated.

If parents have a suspicion that something illegal is going on, they can sign a release for the sheriff’s office to search the phone using a device that pulls everything — including deleted photos and messages — into a format where detectives can easily search for keywords or snapshots of every recent website visit. Ward said sometimes parents are very surprised to find out what type of pornography their young son or daughter was looking at before clearing their browsing history.

There are parental-control options on the market that can notify parents of their child’s web activity or block certain sites. Ward said those can be helpful, but they’re not fool-proof. Teens today are incredibly tech-savvy and they all have friends with web-connected devices at school.

“Kids get curious about sex and the opposite sex and now they have a device in their hand where they can look things up privately,” he said. “When I was a kid you had to have a friend with a dad who had a Playboy magazine.”

That’s why it’s important that parents have conversations with their children, Ward said, about what they might find online and how someone might take advantage of them there. Ward also encourages parents to have conversations with their children about topics such as consent and the dangers of drinking to the point of blacking out at a party. Teens tend to think of rape as something that happens “with a stranger grabbing you in the parking lot,” but the vast majority of sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone known to the victim.

Ward has seen many local cases where the perpetrator (and often their parents) don’t think what they did was rape or assault, because the victim was not actively fighting back. A boy might have had sex with a half-unconscious, intoxicated girl at a party or offered a girl a ride home, only to take her somewhere deserted and refuse to take her back until she agreed to have sex with him.

“Teens often have no idea how the laws work and what applies to them,” he said.

News Editor

Hermiston Herald news editor and reporter covering city government and economic development in Hermiston, Umatilla, Stanfield and Echo.

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