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A recent national survey found that 20 percent of teens between the ages of 13 and 19 have sent or posted a nude photo, two-thirds of which were sent to a romantic partner. Fifteen percent of teens admit to having forwarded sexual images to other recipients. The average age for sending a "sext message" is 12, and the typical age for receiving a first sext message is 10.

As a public educator in a secondary school setting I have observed the widespread practice of "sexting" among teens. Teens casually and openly discuss sexts they have sent or received and the distribution of sexual images of themselves and peers via social networking sites. In accordance with policies set by the Utah State Board of Education, teachers are responsible for reporting inappropriate activities that have occurred at the school.

While the sexual images are very rarely generated at school, the transmission and ensuing cyberbullying often are.

I do not believe that a majority of students are naive, but I do believe they often don't understand the magnitude of the implications surrounding a quick, naughty text message or forwarded image. Students do not necessarily understand that once a digital image is transmitted they have no control over its distribution; it is no longer a private communication.

Students may not understand the danger posed by pedophiles or other sexual predators on the Internet. They may not understand that they could be charged with distributing child pornography, which may bring mandatory registration as a sex offender and possible incarceration. That criminal record would show up on background checks and job applications.

Students need to be taught the implications of sexting on their future relationships — possible development of a pornography addiction and objectification of the opposite sex.

Opponents to teaching digital citizenship in the classroom say schools have no right to meddle with the students' personal lives and that regulating sexting interferes with protected right of free speech. Others say parents who are worried can avoid the risk by not allowing their children to use cell phones.

However, in reality, even if a child does not yet carry a personal cell phone, that child may come into contact with an image on another student's phone, whether at school, on the bus or at a friend's house. I believe appropriate education about Internet safety and digital citizenship should, to some degree, be part of the public school curriculum.

Character education is not without precedence in the courts, which have long upheld the tradition, originally derived from English Common Law, that teachers and administrators act in loco parentis, which grants educators a role in parenting children while at school. That role could be extended to include the monitoring of electronic devices.

If children are exposed to sexting at ages 10 through 12, they should be informed by both parents and educators how to handle such electronic communications when they come across them. Such character education should not include scare tactics that may cause children to retreat into secret digital communities.

Although sexual harassment and exploring sexual desire are not new issues for teens, both children and adults should consider the risk of inappropriate exploration that the new digital mediums present.

Krystal K. Baker is a secondary education teacher in the Nebo School District and lives in Vinyard.

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