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.
"Hopefully we'll get the message out to these kids,'' says Michael McAlexander, a prosecutor in Allen County, Indiana, 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.
"We don't want to throw these kids in jail,'' McAlexander says. "But we want them to think.''
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CHILD PORN CHARGES
This month in Greensburg, Penn., 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.
Dante Bertani, chief public defender in Westmoreland County, Pa., 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,'' Bertani 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, where the Ohio girl attends school. He agrees that felony charges are not appropriate, but he says there has to be a way to educate students and their parents about the harm.
"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.
CHECK THE PHONES
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.''
She 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.''