As tweens and young adults navigate the world of social media, educators and parents want them to be responsible and safe. But just what that means and how to achieve it has become complicated, reflecting an increasingly complex social landscape.

Indiana House Enrolled Act 1083, passed this session and championed by Rep. Linda Lawson, D-Hammond, permits a defense against charges of possessing child pornography if the person sent the image voluntarily and the recipient is within four years of age of the sender, in an "ongoing personal relationship" wit the sender and younger than 22.

"This is going to keep kids' names off the sex offender list," Lawson said. "Kids are doing things today that none of us ever thought about years ago. If their names get on a sex offender list, they'd lose out on college loans and other programs, and we passed this law so they don't ruin their lives at a young age."

Before that law was approved, minors convicted of sending or receiving sexually explicit images via cellphone were convicted of a felony, which carried a of penalty of up to eight years in prison and required registration as a sex offender.

Schools in Indiana and Illinois have been dealing with the issue for a few years now, since social media such as Facebook and MySpace are available, along with cellphone texting.

Illinois State Board of Education spokesman Matt Vanover said the agency leaves it to individual schools to set policy and discuss online safety. A new law in Illinois calls on the courts to order treatment for a teen, including counseling, in sexting cases.

Valparaiso Community Schools Superintendent Andrew Melin said administrators will continue to look at ways to better help students understand the ethical and appropriate use of social media.

"We have to be accountable and persistent. We want our students to understand how to use technology more effectively, efficiently and appropriately," he said.

Merrillville Community School Corp. Superintendent Tony Lux said administrators monitor what students put on Facebook and MySpace, especially for students who have issues with behavior and bullying.

"Online postings also are protected by freedom of speech," he said. "However, when there are unlawful threats, slander or statements that create a disruption of the educational process at school, then both school and even criminal consequences can be applied. Open violations of behavior codes for athletics and extracurriculars can provide evidence that could result in implementing consequences at school for those violations."

East Porter County School Corp. Superintendent Rod Gardin said a new policy this school year will allow students to bring cellphones to school, but they must leave them in their locker or vehicle.

"We have had students calling and texting each other during the day. One student sent a text message while taking the end-of-course assessment, which invalidated the test. In general, it's a disruption during the school day when teachers are trying to teach," he said.

Reporting like this is brought to you by a staff of experienced local journalists committed to telling the stories of your community. Support from subscribers is vital to continue our mission.