More than 100 teens in Canon City, Colorado, were saved from a sexting scarlet letter last month.
Prosecutors decided not to press child pornography or other charges, which would have forced the middle and high school students to register as sex offenders for swapping and collecting hundreds of nude pictures. Some teens had evaded parental oversight by using the private Photo Vault app, which allows naked pictures to be hidden on smartphones.
The early data on the rate of adolescents exchanging sexually explicit pictures or messages, known as sexting, has been all over the map, ranging from the low single digits to upwards of a third of teens. According to recent research by Jeff Temple, associate professor and psychologist at University of Texas Medical Branch, anywhere from 20 to 30 percent of teens will send or receive an explicit text. By college, that number is around 50 percent. And 70 percent of teen girls have been asked to send a naked picture of themselves, he said.
Teens engaged in sexting minimize or dismiss the legal and emotional risks involved. But in 30 states, sexting could carry felony charges under child pornography laws and put participants on a sex offender registry. There are 20 states with laws that specifically address sexting; of those, 11 treat it as a misdemeanor, allowing informal sanctions such as counseling, according to the Cyberbullying Research Center.
When Temple has the opportunity to discuss these risks with students, he begins by asking them if they wear a seat belt in the car. Every hand in the crowd goes up. Then he asks, "Why?"
The students say they want to be protected in case there is an accident.
"But the chances are slim," he says.
"But just in case," a student typically responds.
Ah, just in case. This is where he wants them.
He tells them to think about how slim the chances of getting caught sexting seem.
It's unlikely. But what if?
Then, the consequences can be enormous -- life-altering. It's a crash in which reputations and futures get burned.
Yet anytime there is a big bust of a school sexting ring, which happens regularly in big cities and small towns all across the country, parents express shock.
Temple says parents do their children a real disservice if they don't pay attention to their online lives. They have to know how popular apps like Instagram, Snapchat and Tumblr work so they can help their children become responsible digital citizens.
Sexting creates a perfect storm of parental avoidance: unfamiliar technology combined with the uncomfortable topic of their child's emerging sexuality. But staying in a state of denial does nothing to protect your kids.
Temple says his research finds that sexting typically precedes real-life sex. And teen girls who sexted were more like to be associated with other risky behavior, he said.
"Risky behaviors tend to cluster together," he said, not that one necessarily causes another.
His advice to parents who catch their teens with compromising or inappropriate texts on their phones is not to panic or freak out. It's a chance to talk about consequences and boundaries. It signals a need for closer monitoring, but it is also an opportunity to talk about healthy relationships, digital citizenship and safe sex, he said.
"What does it mean to be online, and how does it reflect their offline behavior?" he asked.
Until our laws catch up to the ways in which technology has impacted teen interactions, parents have to continue to use stories like Canon City's to talk to their children about sexting.
Otherwise, kids risk being branded for life by a teenage mistake.