February 22, 2015

Swapping nude images spells trouble for teens

2-22-2015 Wisconsin:

Police in Rhinelander have long been aware that "sexting" — sending sexually explicit photos or text messages — is popular with teenagers.

But until November, when the mother of a Rhinelander High School student turned over a nude image of one of her son's classmates that she found on his cell phone, law enforcement officials had no idea the problem was so pervasive. That single image led police to identify dozens of students, all of whom had been trading explicit images with one another on a regular basis.

"It was overwhelming how many kids were involved," said Oneida County Sheriff's Lt. Terri Hook.

Most of the photos were "selfies," private photos that were taken and sent to a boyfriend or girlfriend. Many were forwarded on to friends or posted on social media sites both locally and around the country. In all, hundreds of photos snaked their way through the school; some wound up in the hands of people several states away, police said.

More than 40 students were involved in distributing teen pornography, police said. Few understood that just having the photos in their possession could have landed them in prison — and on the sex offender registry for life.

"For most of these kids, it didn't even seem like a big deal to them. It was just something they did, something they thought everybody did," Hook said.

When the investigation was over, Oneida County officials declined to prosecute. Instead, students and parents attended informational sessions meant to stop the behavior from happening again.

"We could have kept on investigating. We could have, I'm sure, found much more," Hook said. "We stopped, because what was really clear to us was that we had a problem."

The situation in Rhinelander is not uncommon in Wisconsin.

Many teens send sexually explicit photos on their cell phones believing the image will stay private, police and prosecutors say. Yet increasingly, the images are finding their way into the hands of sexual predators, and the teens themselves can be faced with harsh, lifelong penalties for their behavior.

Of the more than 130 million images containing child pornography examined since 2002 by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, one in four were initially posted by minors themselves, said John Sheehan, executive director of the organization.

Grave consequences, serious risks

For teens, the consequences of sexting can go well beyond the humiliation of appearing naked on every cell phone in math class. A single image can easily jeopardize a job search or quickly torpedo a college application. ..Continued.. by Shereen Siewert

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