Impulsive decisions by teens can lead to serious, long term problems
Maybe it starts as an innocent teenage flirtation, a dare or an accident. It could end with a criminal record for the teen; a parent’s worst nightmare, and a community concerned with the direction of today’s youth.
The ongoing investigation into inappropriate photo sharing, or ‘sexting’ at Rhinelander High School is one example of what schools and towns are facing throughout the country. But it’s not just texting that students are using. There’s SnapChat, Facebook, Twitter and a multitude of social media sites that may be foreign to parents.
“Teenagers don’t think in the long term,” said Katie Kennedy, a mental health and substance abuse clinician at Options Counseling Services in Rhinelander. “It’s short term, instant gratification; a decision made in the moment that may get them in trouble.”
It could be said that every generation has its challenges. Today’s technology has complicated things, and made them easier at the same time. It takes only a fraction of a second to hit the send button on a phone. “Young people tend to be very trusting, too,” Kennedy said. “They may think, ‘this person likes me,’ and that’s as far as it goes. Decision making skills are not fully developed as teens. The human brain continues to mature beyond adolescence, into the early 20’s.”
In Wisconsin, a 17-year old who commits a crime is considered an adult. “It’s illegal to have, on a cell phone, a staged nude photo of a child under the age of 18,” Lt. Terri Hook of the Oneida County Sheriff’s Department stated. “And the person who takes a picture of him or herself and sends it or shares it with anyone under 18 could be charged with exposing a child to harmful material.” Possession of child pornography is a charge that could apply here, but Hook said that isn’t always the direction officials are headed.
Law enforcement refers any crimes allegedly committed by students ages 10-17 to Oneida County Social Services for processing. Social work supervisor Beth Hoerchler said staff receives the criminal complaint and meets with the child and parents. “We then meet with the District Attorney and make recommendations,” Hoerchler said, “which could be for counseling and education, go to juvenile court or something in between.”
Mental health professional Kennedy said often students –and parents simply don’t know it’s not okay to text nude pictures of themselves. “Kids are one step ahead of adults when it comes to technology,” she continued. “So those conversations are not happening between parents and their children.”
“Rhinelander is not the first school,” Hook added, “to be struck by this.” Will it be the last? Hook said this particular investigation indicates this isn’t even the first time. While she cannot comment on the ongoing investigation, Hook said this goes back several years. “The statute of limitations is six years.”
Education, Kennedy said, would be the best thing to come out of the investigation at the high school. “Parents need to know what’s happening out there with social media,” Kennedy said, “and teens need to know that one impulsive decision can affect them for the rest of their lives.”
Kennedy’s wish may be coming true. In response to the current investigations, the School District of Rhinelander, in conjunction with the Oneida County Sheriff’s Department, Oneida County Social Services Department, and Tri-County Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, Inc. will host an internet safety expert and informational speaker Tuesday, Nov. 11. Eric Szatkowski is a 23-year veteran special agent with the Wisconsin Department of Justice/Division of Criminal Investigation. He is currently assigned to the state’s Internet Crimes against Children Task Force in Milwaukee. He will speak to students in grades four through twelve in separate grade level appropriate presentations. There will be an evening presentation at Rhinelander High School from 6-8 p.m. for interested adults and parents.