Today's students under age 18 grew up with smartphones and the internet, and that technology has permeated their lives. When sixth graders at an assembly at Daviess County Middle School were asked Thursday how many had a smartphone, the overwhelming majority of the students raised their hands.
But that instant access to the internet through phones and gaming devices carries considerable risks, Kentucky State Police Trooper Corey King told the students.
"It is a world open to you that I didn't have," King said during a presentation in the gymnasium. But sharing certain things over electronic communications has serious personal, and legal, repercussions.
Also, social media and the internet have become the primary stalking ground for people who sexually prey on children, King said.
"The No. 1 outlet for pedophiles and predators is trolling online," King said. Parents lock doors to keep people physically out, "yet, we do very little or nothing with Wi-Fi or smartphones."
Amy Payne, the middle school's Youth Services Center coordinator, said "students are using technology in a variety of ways," and they should know the risks.
"It's here, and students do need to be aware that online predators are out there," she said.
According to a 2018 report by the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics which included studies involving more than 110,000 participants, 14.8 percent of students had sent sexually explicit photos, or "nudes," while 27.4 percent had received a sext.
"By law, if you are under the age of 18 and you take a nude photo (of yourself) and send it, you have just produced and distributed child pornography," King said.
Anyone who receives a nude photo of a juvenile can be charged with possession of child pornography, or with the distribution of child pornography, if he or she forwards the photo, he said.
Sending a nude photo puts the subject of the photo at risk of being tormented or bullied by peers if the photo is shared with others. The JAMA study found 12 percent of students who have sent a sext reported the photo was forwarded against their will.
"When it (a nude photo) goes out there, it's out there and it's not coming back," King said.
Those photos end up being shared by people who traffic in child pornography, he said.
"In Kentucky, we have 19,000 known child porn images shared (every) day," King said. A sext sent by a teen that is shared "goes to the underground, where all the creepers are sharing your photos to get more and more."
Pedophiles seek subjects on social media, chat sites and through online games. King said about half of social media pages are open for anyone to view, which makes them easy targets for pedophiles looking for juveniles.
King said told students to beware of "red flags" while online, such as when a person you're playing a game with asks to call or text you, or directs you to their social media page. Another warning sign is when someone asks to meet in person.
A pedophile can disguise his identity to seem like a juvenile. Online predators will try to appear friendly and will take the child's side to build a connection, King said.
"Their job is to put a wedge between you and the person who loves you the most, your parents," King said. But "this person does not have your best interest at heart. ... If they start trying to meet you, or show signs of affection, that's a red flag."
King warned the students to not post details about their lives online, such as when they are going to be home or when their parents will be out of the house. Posting such details creates opportunities for pedophiles and opens up your home to potentially being burglarized.
"Be careful what you post," King said. "Think before you post."
After the presentation, King said parents need to talk about the dangers of sharing nude photos with other teens and communicating online with strangers. Parents should also monitor their children's online activity, including on their social media pages, gaming platforms, the apps they use and VOIP apps like Periscope.
King also recommended parents disconnect their Wi-Fi at night and physically remove the router so kids can't get online while parents are asleep.
"Periodically look at their phones, and always have complete access to it," King said. "... For predators, (online) is the No. 1 way to get to kids, because they know it. I implore parents to know it as well."
James Mayse, 270-691-7303, firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @JamesMayse