Tahoe authorities not seeing an epidemic of ‘sexting’
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE – In recent months, a firestorm has erupted over so-called “sexting” – the practice of sending sexually suggestive photos via cell phone – among American adolescents.
Sexting cases have made it into headlines, legislatures and courtrooms. In some states, juveniles have faced the possibility of criminal charges. In Florida, an 18-year-old who sent explicit images of his girlfriend to people on her contact list was listed on a sex-offender registry. In Vermont and Ohio, lawmakers have drafted sexting-related bills.
One oft-quoted online study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and Cosmogirl.com estimates that one in five teen girls have electronically sent or posted nude or semi-nude images of themselves online.
Despite the uproar, some South Shore school officials say there’s little evidence to suggest the number of local teenagers sexting is anywhere as high as the study indicates.
But South Lake Tahoe police are investigating a suspected sexting case and El Dorado County Assistant District Attorney Hans Uthe has urged kids to use caution before hitting the “send” button.
South Tahoe High School health teacher Julia Russell said the mention of sexting is a sure way to draw laughter from students, who consider the hype surrounding around the term “so silly” and “absurd.”
Although Russell said she knows of students posting racy pictures on social networking Web sites such as Myspace, she said she hasn’t heard of any local students sending sexually charged images to each other via cell phones.
But Russell admitted that kind of information wouldn’t necessarily be something teenagers would volunteer, and the health teacher said she wouldn’t be surprised if kids are using cell phones for such activities.
“You really don’t know what the kids are doing,” Russell said. “They have access to pretty much anything.”
Kids using technology to harass other students is a more prominent concern than sexting, Russell said.
Saint Theresa School Principal Danette Winslow also said she has not heard of any local incidents of sexting, but mentioned Myspace as a place where non-sexual, but still inappropriate, pictures of local youth have ended up.
“It is just one of those things, you don’t want their pictures posted on Myspace,” Winslow said. “Even if they’re innocent pictures, you just don’t know where those pictures go,” Winslow said.
Winslow recommended parents keep computers in common areas of a home and consider taking cell phones or laptops from kids at night to prevent them from using them inappropriately. Most of all, Winslow urged parents to talk with their kids about some of the dangers of growing up online and listen to their kids’ experiences without jumping to anger.
“It’s just my experience that there have been too many negative things that come from (Myspace), especially for kids,” Winslow said.
One example of just how serious sending sexual images via cell phones can become for teenagers is 18-year-old Jesse Logan of Cincinnati, who hanged herself in her bedroom last July after being tormented by classmates for sending a nude picture of herself to her boyfriend, who then sent it to others.
Although Logan’s death is an extreme example of the possible consequences of sexting, suicide is not the only consequence of sexting that can have permanent ramifications, especially when the photos end up online, Uthe said.
“It’s awfully hard to reel those pictures back in off the Internet,” Uthe said. “Once a picture ends up in a bad place, it’s probably going to stay there.”
Police are investigation an incident where an underage girl at the South Shore allegedly sent suggestive pictures to an adult man, Uthe said. Citing the girl’s age, Uthe declined to discuss specifics of the case.
The prosecutor has heard rumors of additional incidents of sexting and said the district attorney’s office will review cases individually as they come up before determining how to proceed.
“We’re trying to be sensitive in that kids are involved, but mindful that these pictures can get to places that can – for many years – have an impact on minors’ lives,” Uthe said.
Child pornography charges are not out of the realm of possibilities for both senders and receivers of sexually explicit images of adolescents, Uthe said.
“It can get very serious, very quickly,” Uthe said.
The circumstances surrounding the creation of the pictures, differences in ages between a sender and a receiver of an image, whether there is evidence of domination in a relationship involving sexting and whether the photos have been distributed on the Internet will be considered before the district attorney’s office pursues a sexting-related prosecution, Uthe said.
“The message we want to extend is just one of being responsible, of being cautious,” Uthe said. “It’s just something that can get away from you and we don’t want to see anyone get hurt.”
– The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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