- Cat Cutillo
A new program designed to empower and protect middle and high school students from digital risks like sexting will be available for free in up to 10 schools or youth-serving organizations in Chittenden, Windham and Windsor counties this school year. Project SELFIE (Safe Expression online For Internet Empowerment) was developed by Prevent Child Abuse Vermont and will be distributed on a first-come-first-served basis.
Those interested should email Marcie Hambrick, the child sexual abuse prevention director at Prevent Child Abuse Vermont, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
According to Hambrick, the 2019 Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that 27 percent of Vermont high schoolers who responded have either sent or received a sext — a sexually explicit message or image — in the past 30 days. “That’s really significant,” Hambrick said. “Students of color and students who identify as LGBT have even higher rates.”
Project SELFIE, made possible by a donation from the Canaday Family Charitable Trust, will use a two-pronged approach designed to teach kids as well as their parents and guardians. The youth portion will be delivered virtually over the course of two class periods, most likely during a health class. As of now, the student program will run only this year.
The adult portion is a single two-hour virtual interactive training called “Technicool: Keeping Kids Safe on the Internet,” which the nonprofit has offered for two years. Participation is unlimited, and Prevent Child Abuse Vermont plans to continue the free program indefinitely.
The nonprofit ran a pilot program of the youth portion of Project SELFIE at Hartford High School in White River Junction last year. Child abuse prevention trainer Joy Kitchell facilitated that trial run and said it was received well by the students. Teens’ digital risks are increasing each year, Kitchell said, citing a meta-analysis published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, which compared youth sexting from 2015 to 2020.
“They found that sending sexts has increased by 4 percent, receiving sexts has increased by 7 percent and forwarding — sharing a sext without permission — has increased by 2 percent,” said Kitchell.
Technicool teaches adults how to prevent grooming, online pornography and sexting behavior in adolescents.
The youth empowerment portion focuses on sexting prevention. Curriculum covers maintaining digital boundaries, understanding the difference between consensual and non-consensual interactions and learning how peer pressure affects feelings and decision-making about sexting. Youths are encouraged to establish personal boundaries regarding sexting in advance to help prevent impulse decisions. They are also taught to identify a trusted adult or resource to access when they have questions or concerns.
Cyberbullying, in the form of revenge porn and sextortion — when a perpetrator threatens to reveal compromising images if demands aren’t met — is covered in both the adult and youth components.
The programs also teach about the legal consequences of sexting. In Vermont, minors are not prosecuted for sending or receiving sexts if the messages are consensual. But minors who forward a sext of another minor can be prosecuted as adults.
“That’s considered revenge porn under Vermont law, and the penalties are multiple times higher,” said Hambrick. “I always remind parents not to treat their child’s smartphone like a diary, which I would never read my child’s diary. A smartphone is a connected device to the world. It’s absolutely appropriate for parents to be monitoring what comes in and goes out of those devices.”