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Sexting, Snapchat, and risky teen behavior online: WTOL 11 Special Report

This story should help open parents' eyes to what's happening with kids and technology.      There are free apps and areas on-line that are making it very easy for children to get in trouble with...

(Toledo News Now) - The number of young people with access to the Internet is unprecedented. According to a 2013 study of teens & technology from the Pew Research Center, the vast majority of American teenagers have cell phones, a significant number have smartphones and many have their own tablets.

29% of teens don't even share a computer... they have their own. And almost all of them are online.  

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Parents give their children phones because they want their kids to be able to connect & communicate. But with that comes the risk that teens and increasingly, young children, are exposed to adult material, or are even participating in sexual behavior online. And it's not always anonymous - technology is allowing young kids to share images and video in new ways all the time. Kids have unlimited access to apps and websites, all free. Many have unmitigated access to phones and computers, with no supervision. All that is making it very easy for children to get in trouble with sexting, predators, and even the law.

This is where parents get left behind. Well-meaning parents who aren't on top of the hottest apps or sites may not even know what their kids have access to. Technologies are always evolving and it's difficult for parents to monitor and control what their kids see and share. And that's leading to a host of difficult problems for parents - and kids of all ages.

Don't talk to strangers: Chat sites & risky sexual behavior

We all hear this warning from our parents when we're young: "Don't talk to strangers." But it's never been more true than now in the digital age, where young kids can be exposed to anyone on the Internet.

Anngelique Boyer, mom to a 15 year-old boy at Anthony Wayne Schools, says her son was recently contacted by a stranger online asking for his contact information.

"If I wouldn't have been nosey or on top of it, he would have gotten himself in trouble," Boyer told us.  Now, Boyer feels like she has to worry about the online conversations her son is having with people she doesn't know. And she's right - nowadays it seems every parent needs to add "digital babysitting" to their checklist.

That's because kids talking to online strangers is easier than parents realize. For example, take the website Omegle, which bills itself as a place to "meet strangers with your interests." When you Google it, the subtitle below Omegle's main link directly prompts users to "Do a sex chat!"

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When you log on, you are prompted to enter your personal interests, or connect via Facebook before beginning a chat. The controversy here is that anyone can participate or "talk to strangers" and only some of the video chats are monitored. (Read Omegle privacy policy) The service is used heavily for video sex-chats, and users, if banned, are redirected to an adult website. Most users can immediately chat and upload their own content - and these "private chatrooms" are mostly unmoderated. That means anyone can chat, anyone can take pictures of themselves, post, and share, (and be saved) forever.

This is only one of many places where free chat content is allowed from any user. Users can "talk to strangers" this way via sites like ChatRoulette, Imeetzu and many more.

SnapChat: Teens, nude pics, & no privacy

One of the most popular apps amongst teens is "SnapChat," which allows users to take a photo, send it, and then the image disappears on the other end after about 10 seconds. Apps can be downloaded straight to smartphones, so it might be harder for parents to track when their kids are using them if the kids are using their own smartphones.

SnapChat is big right now because some think it represents an "untraceable" way to exchange images. And many times those images are of a sexual nature. But teens who think they are practicing "safe sext" while SnapChatting are wrong. Saving images received in the app is as easy as a push of a button on any device. Smartphones can "screen-grab" images with just a push of a button. That image can then be texted, shared, or even posted on social media for all to see.

"They think it's going to be gone, but now there are other ways of capturing it, causing lots of embarrassment," says Resource Officer Brad Baker of Anthony Wayne Schools.  And many teens don't realize that one moment of poor judgement can come back to haunt them.

"I think it's a little too available to teenagers," said junior student Sam Barrett, who goes to Anthony Wayne High School.  "It's too easy to get onto and too easy to get in trouble with," he added.

"I know of a friend who has sent pictures such as that," said sophomore Maddie Cook. "And people talk about it because it gets out," she explained.

In addition to SnapChat, there are other ways to send self-destructive pictures like through Wickr.  Or people can do video chat through oovoo.

Child pornography

One of the reasons that these apps and sites are dangerous is that when underage kids take/send pictures of a sexual nature, depending on the content of the image, it can be a criminal act. A sexual image of a minor can be considered child pornography. What kids don't realize is that one indiscretion, one inappropriate image, can lead to three felonies, (i.e. taking the picture, having the picture, and sending the picture.)

WATCH: Sexting leads to child porn charges for teens

The criminal repercussions for irresponsible behavior are real, and should be taken seriously, and many parents don't even know they exist.

Kids of all ages are at risk

And it's not just teens parents have to worry about. It's younger kids, too.

"What surprises me is the amount of grade-school kids now who have iPhones, smartphones with all the applications on there," said Officer Baker.

READ: How young is too young for a child to have a cell phone

"Every day almost a new app will come out," said Detective Janet Zale from the Oregon Police Department, who also works with the FBI.  She gives talks to communities about sexting and technology. "I don't think some of the boys and girls understand that there are bad people out there," Detective Zale said. "It's not just what you hear on the news somewhere else.  It happens everywhere," she added.

That's when the combination of children, phones, apps, & chat sites can turn into a parent's worst nightmare: when technology is the tool that connects a child with a predator.

Parents, there's help out there

If you're afraid your kid is using technology in an irresponsible way, there are many tools out there that allow parents to regain the upper hand. If they won't listen to your warnings, at least you can track their online behavior with tools of your own.

There are a lot of "parental tracking tools" on the market right now. Parents can use monitoring software for smartphones like PhoneSheriff, mSpy, MobileMonitor to find out what your kids are using. They can track computer activity through programs like Spector Pro.  Worried about your kid on a Friday night? You can even locate your teen drivers and see how fast they're going through SecuraFone and SpeedBump. Full list here.

Or, you can just pick up their phones and snoop, read their text messages, delete the apps you don't want them to use, check their browser history for sites you don't want them to visit, and take away their phones if they cross the line. Every parent has a different approach.

Sometimes, it just comes down to having a conversation about the consequences of sending nude pictures. On the Internet, there's no such thing as a "disappearing image." Once your picture goes out, it can spread like a piece of juicy gossip, and it will haunt you for the rest of your days. And, as the movie the Social Network so cleverly stated, "the Internet is written in ink." Meaning your posts, your status updates, your pictures can leave a permanent mark. And that's a lesson kids need to learn before they get burned and are forced to learn the hard way.

For parents who feel overwhelmed - there are local organizations like AWAKE at Anthony Wayne Schools that can refer you to the right people to help with your questions. "It can be overwhelming and things are constantly changing," said AWAKE Executive Director Amy Barrett.  "Our kids are way ahead of us even though we like to think we are on top of it," she told us.

For Boyer, being proactive is a must.

"I'm always researching to try and stay on top of it and trying to be involved," Boyer explained.  "Even though (my son) doesn't like it, that's what I do."

Information is power. Know what your kid is doing. Sometimes being a "nosy" parent makes all the difference.

Apps and Sites for chatting, images, video chat

This list is a great resource for parents because it shows some of the specific apps kids might be using for image chatting.

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