In March of last year, 50 to 60 girls had something else to worry about. More than 300 explicit photos of them were uploaded onto Dropbox, a third party cloud storage website, and sorted by first and last name of each person. Select RBHS students, mainly males, gained access, yet many of the girls, such as sophomore Gracie Avery, had not expected the recipient of their photos to share them online.
“All I really remember from last year was coming to school that day and somehow everyone had already seen [the pictures] because someone had decided to share the password to their Dropbox with others,” Avery said. “Not only was it saved on the Dropbox, but people were able to screenshot and save it and send it to other people.”
No one knows how many RBHS students had access to the images in that Dropbox. Worldwide, 42.7 percent of internet users engage in pornography, according to TechAddiction, a treatment center for internet addiction. More than 40 million Americans are regular visitors to porn sites, with 72 percent of them men. America produces roughly 89 percent of all pornographic websites, generating anywhere between $10 to $12 billion for the U.S. porn industry.
That’s a whole lot of naked numbers.
Pornography contains a variety of different subcategories, with a popular — and illegal — one being child pornography. Missouri Statute Chapter 573, Section 573.037.2 states that the offense of child pornography is committed if any persons involved are younger than 18. In the state of Missouri, persons 17 years and older are considered adults and any court of law will try them as such, according to the Missouri Bar.
However, persons 17 years or younger have the possibility of facing adult consequences depending on the degree of offense, child pornography included.
“If you’re 15 or 16, you’re still a juvenile, but the problem is when you violate child pornography laws in the state of Missouri and you’re a juvenile, sometimes you can be certified as an adult and have to face adult consequences,” lawyer Jim Rutter of Rutter and Sleeth Law Offices said. “You can also be put on the sex registry. So while you may never have an adult conviction, you can still be on the sex registry for the rest of your life.”
In Missouri if a person possesses one still image of child pornography, it is classified as a class C felony, indicating that such a person would receive a maximum of seven years in prison, or a year in prison and a fine up to $5,000. If one possesses 20 still images of child pornography, or a single moving image, it is classified as a class B felony and they may receive between five to 15 years in jail, according to Nolo, a publisher of self-help legal books.
Probation is also sometimes given as a punishment in child pornography court cases. Earlier this year, a man in Columbia received a suspended five-year prison sentence and five years of probation when investigators found more than 25,000 explicit images on his computer, as reported by the Columbia Tribune.
However, this sentencing differs from that of federal courts, Rutter said.
“For one thing, in sentencing in federal law, there’s really no such thing as probation,” Rutter said. “If you get 10 years, you do practically 10 years. Statewide, it’s not that way. A lot of times, you’ll find police agencies lobbying for federal treatment of child pornography and child-related sex offenses in federal court to get a huge big boost in punishment. The [legal system] has become, generally speaking, more harsh, and it’s become much easier to catch the people that are looking at it and distributing it because of the internet. It’s also been much easier to access it as well.”
For instance, if one were to send a friend an illicit photo of a 17-year-old via text messaging, the law would consider it child pornography simply because they would be in possession of the photo.
“If electronics are involved, a forensic examination must be completed on the devices used for evidentiary purpose,” Detective Tracy Perkins, Cyber Crimes Task Force Coordinator at the Boone County Sheriff’s Department, said. “If an exam needs to be completed, then either I get a written consent or will need to apply for a search warrant through the courts.”
If a case involving child pornography laws occurred at RBHS, the response relies on the severity of the offense, assistant principal Dr. Tim Baker said.
“It depends on where the [pornography] came from and if it was distributed,” Dr. Baker said. “For instance, if it’s downloading in the media center, that’s a relatively minor pornographic thing, if it’s just downloading pictures for themselves. We would take away their computer privileges, contact parents, things like that.”
However, the more serious an incident is, the greater action needed.
“Unfortunately, [the situation] could be something like people getting pictures of kids at school and distributing it,” Dr. Baker said. “If it’s a juvenile, it’s our policy to get the police involved because of child pornography laws.”
When RBHS administrators discovered the images Avery found in Dropbox, the parents of students involved, including Avery’s, were immediately contacted. Her parents went to RBHS the next day to discuss how the incident should be handled, as it did not occur on school grounds.
Perkins has dealt with numerous instances in which she arrested juveniles for the act of promoting or possessing child pornography. The process of investigating child pornography is fairly straightforward, Perkins said. Authorities label an instance of child pornography by compiling evidence of images and videos and by confirming the age of the individuals in the pictures. However, like every other criminal case in society, each case is different. The severity of the sexting case depends solely on the individual case at hand.
“If the [perpetrator] knowingly possesses, promotes or produces the images that depict sexual content or obscene material, that amounts to child pornography,” Perkins said. “If I dealt with a case where two individuals younger than 18 were transferring pictures, my job is not to turn my head and say, ‘Kids will be kids,’” Perkins said. “My job is to stop the act and get parents and/or the juvenile office involved.”
Avery felt dissatisfied with the actions that the police made, believing more could have been done.
“My experience with the law wasn’t really all that great. I waited at least three hours to file a police report, and by the time we actually got in the room with a detective, he kind of blew the situation off,” Avery said. “He assured us that there would be consequences for the people involved in the Dropbox [incident] and for those responsible of being in possession of the nudes.”
Yet, she never saw anything result from the police investigation.
“We went back once and called a few times and never heard anything until I had to come back for more questions,” Avery said. “There hasn’t been any consequences at all, and I truly feel like it was completely brushed under the rug.”
Instead, Avery was simply named a “victim of manipulation.”
Her parents thought otherwise, and so did her classmates; both affected her opinion of her decision the most.
“I think that the law influencing my decision on whether or not to send out nudes wasn’t really a big part,” Avery said. “I got judged by classmates and I think that ultimately made my decision that I shouldn’t send anything along those lines.”[quote cite=”Tracy Perkins, detective”]If the [perpetrator] knowingly possesses, promotes or produces the images that depict sexual content or obscene material, that amounts to child pornography.[/quote]
In the past, spreading pornographic images required more effort than it took to disperse Avery and other females’ pictures into the Dropbox. The internet, as it stands today, makes this task much easier, Perkins said.
“Child pornography as a whole has evolved over the past decade because of the internet,” Perkins said. “It truly is an epidemic. The internet is the source of the problem and with the magnitude of the amount of people using the internet, this kind of behavior will never stop.”
While the internet facilitates a greater contribution to child pornography, it often leads to the downfall of those involved in the distribution.
“That’s how [perpetrators] get caught. What they do is they go on these file-sharing programs and they look for pornography, and at the same time police officers are sitting in front of computer screens,” Rutter said. “They look for child pornography and download it, and what the police do is they locate computers that have child pornography on it and backtrack it to the original location and arrest those people.”
According to a 2010 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 85 percent of teenagers aged 14 to 17 owned cell phones as do 69 percent of 11 to 14-year-olds. Whether consciously or unconsciously, parents are giving their children an immense amount of virtual power. This puts adolescents at a higher risk of being exposed and/or involved with child pornography. In fact, according to Focus on the Family, the average age of exposure to pornography is eight years old.
Perkins and her task force aim to educate the young generation on this matter by offering presentations to schools, organizations or businesses. In 2015, the Task Force presented various topics, such as sexting to cyberbullying, to more than 2,700 individuals.
“I believe every person who gives their child a cell phone or any type of device that connects to the internet should have rules and boundaries in place,” Perkins said. “Most people know it’s dangerous to talk to people we don’t know on the internet or send nude images of ourselves, but to completely understand the long-term effects and the felony offenses being committed is another story.”
The internet contributes to a variety of factors that affect behavior, according to a report written by psychologist John Suler at Rider University. One certain behavior of those mentioned is that of dissociative anonymity, which is the idea that the internet fosters a sense of a hidden and false identity, influencing people to act differently because the actions cannot be traced back to them. Gradually, these perpetrators begin to lose sense of how their actions influence others, holding dire long-term consequences for those affected, the report says.
For Avery, it included a loss of faith in society.
“Looking back on it now, I should’ve known that no matter how many times someone says, ‘I won’t save it,’ ‘I won’t show anyone else,’ people can’t be trusted at all,” Avery said.
Additional reporting by Rochita Ghosh