ST. ALBANS — Texting, Snapchat and social media have become rapidly evolving methods of communication for youth across the globe, and smartphones are finding their way into the hands of younger and younger people. With that in mind, a planned initiative in Franklin County hopes to keep new social crazes from spinning out of control.
“We’re dealing with quite a bit of parent complaints as well as school complaints,” said Franklin County Deputy Sheriff Karry Andileigh, who is spearheading the new Intervention Task Force at the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department. “(The idea) is to get the word out and to get parents communicating with their kids, because parents don’t know what their kids are doing with technology.”
Andileigh said she assumed there were already resources available for those seeking education and connection around the topic of text messaging and intervention. However, one case that the department took on just a month and a half ago inspired Andileigh and other members of the sheriff’s department to create a task force as active participants in Franklin County’s School Resource Officer programs.
“The sexting needs to stop, it’s a serious issue,” Andileigh said. “... This task force is really setting the stage for the criminal piece but it’s also collaborative with parents and community.”
The planned task force will be headed by Lt. Paul Morits, the current Fairfax SRO, Sgt. James Lynch, Enosburg SRO; Deputy Andre Labier, Richford SRO; and Andileigh who is currently in charge of the program and assists SROs as needed.
“The program accepts any and all cases related to delinquency, involving a minor, etc. within Franklin County,” Andileigh wrote in an email.
The sexting dilemma
A study published in JAMA Pediatrics showed that sexting and the number of teenagers with smartphones has increased since 2009, and 14.8% of subjects between the ages of 12 and 17 had sent sexually explicit text messages, or “sexts.”
The study showed that about 1 in 4 (27.4%) have received them, an increase from a 2009 Pew Research Center study that revealed that 4% and 15% of 12- to 17-year-olds had sent and received sexts.
According to Influence Central’s 2016 Digital Trends Study, the average age at which kids get their first smartphone is 10.3 years old.
“Sexting is a problem that goes all the way into the middle schools,” said Maple Run Unified School District Assistant Superintendent Bill Kimball. “It’s becoming much more of a prevalent problem.”
The plan going forward? Collaboration.
“Anytime we can get assistance from our police officers and sheriff in areas of need, and we definitely want to utilize them,” said MRUSD Superintendent Kevin Dirth. “We talk about it, we even have somewhat of a curriculum on the appropriate use of the internet.”
The proposed task force
The plan is form a multi-departmental support and educational staff collaboration that would combine community advocacy, school-based forums, resource officers and law enforcement to create education opportunities for anyone to learn about texting and technology, what to look for as a parent, guardian and educator, and how to cultivate healthy texting habits.
“For us, it’s more of the intervention piece,” Andileigh said. “Understanding where kids are coming from. They need that independence and that voice that they don’t feel they have right now to communicate about what’s in their head and what’s on their minds.”
In addition to applications like Snapchat, which delete posts within 30 seconds, there are apps that hide other apps that can be downloaded, such as Keepsafe, Hide App and APex Launcher.
Andileigh let her 11-year-old niece commandeer her phone for a time, and upon receiving it back could barely recognize her dashboard.
Her niece took a “widget app” and covered each of Andileigh’s normal applications with pictures that hide the purpose of the app itself.
“Kids are taking these apps and they’re able to disguise what’s underneath it,” Andileigh said. “Kids are learning a lot more than we know, and they’re able to do a lot more, and we have the ability to just quickly grasp.”
The idea for the initiative began with a parent who communicated their concerns around texting and applications with school officials and subsequently the police.
“Right now, we are beginning the framework,” Andileigh said. “We’re planning to do a survey to get out to the schools and hopefully get some statistics on what kids are doing completely anonymously, just as a foundation for this.”
Andileigh said her hope is to create a forum for children, parents and community members to communicate how they feel and how to avoid situations where texting, hiding texts and hidden conversations become an issue.