SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - Perhaps it is no surprise that as kids spend more time in front of screens during the pandemic, the problem of sexting is only getting worse.
But what is surprising--and frustrating--is that a bill designed to educate Illinois children about the dangers of sexting remains bottled up in Springfield.
"In our age, when the internet is like a third arm, you know for kids in particular this is just their mechanism and their way to experience how to become an adult," said Char Rivette of Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center.
Child safety advocates say sexting was already a big problem before the pandemic.
In 2019, over 44 million files of child sexual abuse material were reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
"As high as a third of that material could be self-generated material, which means the child took it themselves and then it leaked out and spread," said Sarah Gardner, Vice President of External Affairs for Thorn. "We have research that shows children as young as eight are solicited for a naked photo or to sext."
Thorn is a nonprofit that builds technology to fight online child sexual abuse. They say the problem is children and even older teenagers do not understand that once something is on the internet, it stays on the internet.
"Remember, these are children. These are kids that don't yet have the capacity of really understanding long term consequences," Rivette said.
Now, the pandemic has created the perfect storm for sexting-- children being isolated, spending far more time in front of screens and hours a day remote learning.
Experts say while there is no hard data yet, it is likely kids are sexting far more than ever before.
"My guess is that it's increased quite a bit over this last year. And we're probably going to start seeing the consequences of this not only now, but for many years to come," Rivette said.
"So we really got to help them understand the pros and cons--no--the cons and cons to sexting," said Illinois State Rep. Maurice West of Rockford.
That is why West introduced a bill last year to make sexting education a mandatory part of sex education in Illinois public classrooms.
The bill passed the house unanimously--but then-- at a time when it is most needed-- died in the senate. So what happened?
"Uh, COVID. March 3rd or March 4th. I passed it with flying colors out of the House. March 5th was the last time we set foot on the House floor in the state capitol," West said.
Unlike other legislative bodies that continued working online, the Illinois legislature mostly just called it quits, which means a bill that could help kids during COVID disappeared because of COVID.
West plans to re-introduce it in the 2021 session that should get underway soon.
"I’m confident it will pass both chambers by the end of the legislative session," he said.
Too late for the pandemic, but experts say it is a good start.
"We applaud efforts that Illinois is taking to try and begin these conversations earlier and in our schools," Gardner said.