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Youths using new technology for risque business | Is your teen 'sexting?'

Left: Dramatization of a girl discovering she
Left: Dramatization of a girl discovering she's been the victim of sexting. Right: Det. Robert Dentz, left, and Lt. Carl Kleinknecht in the cyber crime unit at the Bellevue Police Department headquarters.
— image credit: Left: Photo from SXC | Right: Chad Coleman, Bellevue Reporter

The world of electronic media is like an open frontier: full of promise and uncharted territory. It's also a place of danger.

This is especially true for impulsive teens, who've been finding bawdy new ways to use social-networking sites, not to mention the cell phones that Mom and Dad cleverly bought for them as tethers.

Many youths use electronic media these days to share racy photos – not of X-rated models, but themselves.

The act, known as "sexting" when it's done by text message, is becoming increasingly popular. According to a survey released by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, one in five teen girls say they have electronically sent or posted images of themselves nude or partially nude.

Forty percent of the girls said they sent sexually suggestive content as a "joke," but the humor tends to cease once that content disseminates.

One-third of teen boys and one-third of teen girls surveyed say they've received nude images meant to be private. Photos like those spread like wildfire, especially after bitter breakups.

Once the damage is done, it can be impossible to fix. The images may be available forever – to potential employers, college recruiters, strangers, friends and enemies alike.

"There's a lot of powerful technology in the hands of kids who can't think for themselves and have no idea what the consequences are," said Bellevue Police Lt. Carl Kleinknecht, who worked on cyber-crimes until recently.

The repercussions don't end with humiliation. There's also the possibility of legal ramifications. Incidents are popping up across the country with sexting teens getting prosecuted for crimes related to child pornography.

An 18-year-old man from Florida was convicted this year of a felony after sharing a naked photo of his 16-year-old girlfriend. The man, who sent the images to the girl's family and friends after an argument, was sentenced to five years probation and required to register as a sex offender.

In some cases, the victim and the offender are one and the same.

Prosecutors in Pennsylvania charged several high school girls this year with manufacturing and distributing child pornography after they sent nude photos of themselves to a group of teenage boys. The guys were charged for possession of the images.

No such cases have occurred in King County, where the prosecutor's office has never indicted a minor for crimes related to sexting.

"We don't want to be charging 15-year-old girls who have a lapse in judgement for production of pornography," said King County Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Rich Anderson.

That doesn't mean sexting is fair game in these parts. Anderson said he looks for malicious intent when deciding whether to make an arraignment.

"If a 15-year-old is taking pictures of (juvenile) girls just to post them on the internet, we would probably charge," Anderson said.

That could just as easily go for boyfriends who push "send" out of anger. The state's cyber-stalking laws consider electronic communications to be malicious if they are sent with the intent to harass, torment or embarrass.

Kleinknecht says he saw only a handful of sexting complaints during his time handling cyber crimes, but he suspects many instances go unreported.

"That's the tip of the iceberg," he said. "Lots of parents, when they find out, handle it themselves."

Police are bound to investigate all sexting cases involving minors and file a report with the prosecutor's office.

Kleinknecht said parents should exercise the authority they have as bill payers to monitor their children's cell phones.

"They need to grant themselves permission to do that," he said. "You can't allow kids to have exclusive domain over a cell phone."

The same goes for social-networking accounts on sites like MySpace and Facebook, Kleinknecht said. That's where youths are most likely to encounter sexual predators using fake profiles to troll for kids.

"Parents should be nosey, even to the point where their kids are upset with them," he said. "I'd rather have a child mad at me than the victim of child rape."

Connect Safely.org provides online resources to help parents, youths, and educators learn about the dangers of socializing through electronic media.

The web site lists the following advice for teens regarding nude images:

• If a private photo of a nude person arrives on your phone or computer, do not send it to anyone else. Doing so may be considered distribution of child pornography.

• If you have sent nude pictures of yourself, stop immediately. You're at risk of being charged with producing and distributing child pornography.

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