CHICAGO – Though youth is fleeting, images sent on a cell phone or posted online may not be, especially if they're naughty.
Teenagers' habit of distributing nude self-portraits electronically — often called "sexting" if it's done by cell phone — has parents and school administrators worried. Some prosecutors have begun charging teens who send and receive such images with child pornography and other serious felonies. But is that the best way to handle it?
"Hopefully we'll get the message out to these kids," says Michael McAlexander, a prosecutor in Allen County, Ind., which includes Fort Wayne. A teenage boy there is facing felony obscenity charges for allegedly sending a photo of his private parts to several female classmates. Another boy was recently charged with child pornography in a similar case.
In some cases, the photos are sent to harass other teens or to get attention. Other times, they're viewed as a high-tech way to flirt. Either way, law enforcement officials want it to stop, even if it means threatening to add "sex offender" to a juvenile's confidential record.
"We don't want to throw these kids in jail," McAlexander says. "But we want them to think."
This month in Greensburg, Pa., three high school girls who sent seminude photos and four male students who received them were all hit with child pornography charges. And in Newark, Ohio, a 15-year-old high school girl faced similar charges for sending her own racy cell phone photos to classmates. She eventually agreed to a curfew, no cell phone and no unsupervised Internet usage over the next few months. If she complies, the charges will be dropped.
In Pennsylvania, all but one of the students accepted a lesser misdemeanor charge, partly to avoid a trial and further embarrassment, a public defender in the case said. The mother of one boy is considering fighting all charges.
Whatever the outcome, the mere fact that child pornography charges were filed at all is stirring debate among students and adults.
At Greensburg-Salem High School in Pennsylvania, junior Jamie Bennish says she's not sure the boys in her school's case should've been charged.
"They did not necessarily choose to receive the pictures, although I find it questionable that they did not delete the photos from their cell phones after some period of time," she says. "As for the girls, there is no excuse for exposing yourself in that way, and any charges they receive they have brought upon themselves."
Dante Vertani, chief public defender in Westmoreland County, Pa., where the students went to court, called the felony charges "horrendous." He says such treatment should be reserved for sex offenders, not teenagers who might've used poor judgment, but meant nothing malicious.
"It should be an issue between the school, the parents and the kids — and primarily the parents and the kids," Vertani says. "It's not something that should be going through the criminal system."
These cases do pose a dilemma, concedes Wes Weaver, the principal at Licking Valley High School, where the Ohio girl attends school.
He agrees that pornography charges or other felonies are not appropriate, noting that "the laws have not caught up to technology."
But he says there has to be some way to educate students and their parents about the harm these photos can do — and the fact that, once they're out there, they often get widely circulated. Days before his staff discovered the girl's nude photos, the county prosecutor had been at the school to warn students against sexting.
"I don't think we're anywhere near having a handle on this," Weaver says. "It's beyond our scope as a school."
Parents are also often at a loss.
Some companies, such as WebSafety Inc., have developed software that parents can use to monitor certain activity on cell phones and computers. They can, for instance, block X-rated texting terms or be alerted when their child is using them, says Mike Adler, the company's CEO.
Photos are trickier, though, and often require a parent to manually check a child's phone.
And that's OK to do, says Dr. Terri Randall, an adolescent psychiatrist in Philadelphia.
"It could be part of the contract of having a cell phone, that you really don't get 100 percent privacy. It's just one more way of keeping track, like knowing what your kid is doing and where they are," says Randall, who's also an instructor at Jefferson Medical College.
Randall says she's seeing more issues related to sexting, especially as cell phones with cameras have become standard. One mother brought her daughter in to be psychologically evaluated after finding provocative cell phone photos of the girl.
Other patients tell Randall how sexting and texting explicit messages has caused relationship problems, especially after a breakup, when photos might be distributed out of spite, for instance.
So she reminds her young patients: "Even though it seems like fun and so exciting right now, that person may not always feel the same way about you. And you may not feel the same way about that person either."
But is it porn? That's questionable, she and others say.
Certainly, technology makes it easier to do and say things we might not do in person, says Amanda Lenhart, a senior researcher with the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
"But ultimately," she says, "I think this is merely another case of technology extending an activity or action that young people have engaged in for years, if not beyond that."