The moral compass: Just where are we headed?

What happens to a generation that grows up without being exposed to a Christian worldview? A look at one of the growing trends among teens — and even younger children — gives us a clue.

Sexting is a growing nationwide problem that involves using cell phones to transmit sexually explicit pictures. At least one national study states that more than 20 percent of teens today participate in the activity. And it’s not just for the big cities. Even my relatively rural community in southwest Virginia is not immune.

Just recently, charges were brought against four students at a Bedford County (Va.) high school as a result of allegedly participating in the activity.

Though the details behind those charges aren’t being released because the students involved are juveniles, authorities will confirm that three students now face misdemeanor charges related to transmitting inappropriate photographs through a cell phone and one student faces a felony charge. If that student is convicted of a felony related to the possession or transmission of child pornography, it could result in the student having to register as a sex offender.

Authorities state that as technology advances, so do the harmful uses of it.

Under Virginia law, anyone who possesses, manufactures or distributes sexually explicit photographs of someone under age of 18 can be found guilty of charges related to the possession and possibly distribution of child pornography, according to Bedford County Commonwealth’s Attorney Randy Krantz. “Prosecutors all over the nation are struggling with it,” he said of the problem. “It’s a fad that has caught on.”

From the east to the west coast, youth are getting involved.

Earlier this year in a western Pennsylvania high school, six teens — three teenage girls who allegedly sent nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves and three male classmates who received those pictures — were charged with child pornography. In reporting on the story, and the widespread practice of sexting, CBS News legal analyst Lisa Bloom questioned: “What are we going to do, lock up 20 percent of America’s teens?”

A story in USA Today earlier this year noted that police investigated more than two dozen teens in at least six states for sexting. Included in those was an investigation in Spotsylvania, Va., in which two boys, 15 and 18, where charged with child pornography charges involving nude pictures from three juveniles, one of which was in elementary school.

And in one of the most tragic cases from last year, an 18-year-old girl in the Cincinnati area hung herself after a sexually provocative picture she had made for her boyfriend ended up being sent out to hundreds of teenagers in at least seven high schools in Greater Cincinnati.

What is sexting and its ramifications?

Krantz said sexting can take on a lot of different forms — from a teenager jokingly trying to “moon” someone via cyberspace to a girlfriend sending a provocative picture to a boyfriend; from someone redistributing an inappropriate photograph they’ve received; to producing and distributing highly-explicit scenes or videos.

When the incident in Bedford County was discovered by school authorities, it was turned over to the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office for investigation. It’s not the first incident in Bedford County, authorities state. Over the past 18 months there have been several, with apparently at least one of those involving middle school students.

Krantz said what happens to the original sexting picture after the initial step can turn into a much bigger problem. Krantz said, unless a person had the intent and foreknowledge that the initial step involved the distribution of child pornography, he is reluctant to place felony charges. He said it must be determined what to do “with these children who are exploiting themselves.”

“I am probably giving them more benefit of the doubt than the law requires me to do,” he said in considering possible charges.

He said the rationale is to try and create a deterrent effect so that those receiving an inappropriate text have every incentive not to retransmit it. “They should at least understand that they better not redistribute them,” he said of the teens involved.

Still, Krantz said there is also a public safety issue at stake that must also be considered.

He said many times dozens of photographs may be transmitted and once they are sent the girl who took the pictures of herself has no control over what happens to them. Too often, Krantz said, those pictures end up on the Internet and can quickly become the part of someone’s child pornography collection, adding the initial purpose for which the photograph might have been taken is long forgotten by an industry that preys on children.

“Those pictures are bought and sold (for child pornography),” he said. “It’s a billion dollar industry.” He said that invariably, when an adult is arrested for possessing child pornography “they have in their possession some of the same (types of) images that started out as a sexting situation.”

“This is just a dangerous activity,” Krantz said. “It can come back to haunt them. …What’s done with a juvenile mindset is now out there permanently, they’ve basically put a bull’s eye on their back.” Such photographs can easily become “currency” in the child porn trade, he said.

When you take a picture of yourself and send it out, it can become the equivalent of putting it up on a billboard and saying, “Hey, look at me,” Krantz said.

In addition, Krantz said child predators often use the pictures to influence other children to “recreate” those images. “The child predators will capture that information and use it to groom a juvenile that’s in their control, stating, ‘look how much fun this young girl is having,’” he said. “You don’t want what you’ve done as a prank or to ‘increase’ your relationship with your boyfriend, to be used to victimize another child. That’s the seriousness of this.”

What can be done?

Authorities state that parents must be educated about the dangers involved with cell phone and Internet use by children. “We wouldn’t give a juvenile keys to a car and turn them loose on the interstate,” Krantz stated. “But we tend to turn them loose (with a cell phone and) on the Internet. There are people out there who just don’t have the (children’s) best interests at heart.”

He said parents have a responsibility to sit down with their children and explain to them the dangers involved.

That’s certainly true. But parents also have a responsibility to provide a proper moral compass for their children. That can’t be left up to the public school system — especially when that system, at its very nature, teaches that there are no moral absolutes. And by the time the authorities get involved, much of the damage has already been done.

And even the authorities themselves, in some states, are trying to minimize the issue. Earlier this month the Vermont Legislature took up a bill that would legalize sexting between teenagers 13 to 18 years old. And the bill has plenty of support.

The Utah legislature also passed lighter penalties for sexting this year.

In the end there is a greater issue at stake, Krantz said: the sexualization of teenagers.

“These are not innocent images,” Krantz said. He said what a teenager might have once tried to say in a love letter now gets sent through a provocative text. “We have been very successful in sexualizing our children. …One of the saddest things is that children can’t be children anymore.”

And now, he said, through the technology of cell phones, Web cams and the Internet, the youth have been given an avenue in which they can sexualize themselves and others. “The monster is beginning to feed itself,” he said. “It’s part of society today.”

That’s a sad commentary on where we are as a nation.

Krantz said at some point society must reach the point of saying “enough is enough.” But he fears that’s not the case. “I’m not sure it’s going to go away. I’m afraid it’s going to get worse.”

Social reactions and legislation will not alone correct this problem. The only solution to such moral decay is to put in place an inner moral compass that turns youth away from such actions. We believe that compass is a Christian worldview.

That means Christians must be proactive in providing guidance for youth. Where the public school system and law enforcement try — at best — to be reactionary to such situations, the Christian worldview being promoted through RENEWANATION and a Christian school system can step in and make a real difference. Students will only be able to see true right from wrong if they first have a solid foundation on which to base those values, and the knowledge of a loving God who created them and desires for them to experience life to its fullest through a relationship with Jesus Christ. Providing an education based on a Christian worldview can do just that. And providing that opportunity tuition-free — the goal of RENEWANATION — means parents need not be bound to a public school system that doesn’t address the real issues of life, and the ultimate Answer to those issues.

By Tom Wilmoth