Teen Sexting: An In-Depth Look at the Trend
Young love is leading to teenagers to commit serious crimes, but most of them do not face serious consequences. Boyfriends and girlfriends are sexting each other – sending sexually explicit photos, images, text messages, or emails via cellphone or mobile devices - and every time they do, they break child pornography laws. Those laws can carry hefty prison sentences, but in most cases, police and prosecutors do not charge them.
Teen sexting makes most parents shudder at the idea. A 14-year-old taking naked pictures and then electronically sharing the image is illegal, but they do it. In this special report, NBC29's Sharon Gregory examined the trend and a case of sexting in Louisa County so big it got the attention of the Virginia State Crime Commission.
Sexually explicit images flood the airwaves and not just to adults either. “Like you need to be like those girls in the Victoria Secret model, you need to look like them,” said 18-year-old Taylor Bauman.
Teenagers are bombarded with the stuff so it's no surprise; they're starring in their own photo shoots. “I know of people that have sent pictures, but I don't think that's when you first think of like ‘oh, you were sexting,'" 17-year-old Lauren Kohler said.
Some say it's just the high tech version of you show me yours, I'll show you mine. “You'll find naked women on a cave wall from old cave men, you know because they didn't have a cellphone and they didn't have a Polaroid,” said Louisa County Sheriff's Chief Deputy Major Donald Lowe.
In April of 2014, a mom in Louisa County called Major Donald Lowe because somebody posted a nude photo of her daughter to Instagram. Lowe went to the school to investigate. All totaled they found more than a 100 instances of sexting by minors - some shared between boyfriend and girlfriend - others shared online.
“We thought it was an isolated case and then when we started digging into it, finding out this is not so isolated,” Major Lowe said.
The Louisa case drew so much attention, the state crime commission made note of it in an October 2014 report on sexting saying "over 1,000 images of underage teenagers had been posted on Instagram accounts.”
Dr. Locke-Downer counsels teens, and understands why they get caught up in the moment. “You've got the onset of puberty, and hormones raging.” she stated. “And then in terms of brain development, the frontal lobe does not fully develop until we're in our early 20s and the frontal lobe controls things like decision making, reasoning, impulse control.”
Detective Mike Wells investigates sexting cases in Albemarle County schools, and he knows the impulse control problem. “I had a middle school kid one time, at Walton Middle School, put a picture of himself, a nude photo of himself, online and before I could have it removed from one site it had been viewed 150,000 times,” he stated.
Technically, that middle school child distributed child pornography, a crime that carries a hefty punishment. But these are children, and juvenile court, as opposed to adult court, has a directive to rehabilitate, not to punish.
Albemarle County Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Darby Lowe says most teens keep it to themselves but when they don't, the law steps in. “What we're trying to do ultimately which is to discourage sexting and to protect the kid. The kids who are involved, they don't realize how those photographs can continue to live on and on in cyberspace,” he stated.
Which is why the commonwealth's attorney, police, and the schools teamed up for seminars to educate students.
“Making a stupid mistake can get you a felony, it's like really, it's shock factor, yeah,” said 15-year-old Kai Milner.
“Then they get embarrassed because now people that they don't want to know, you know, what they were doing, now know,” Major Lowe stated.
"For myself or like for anyone else who's doing it, you have to realize this is kind of a humiliating thing, like it's embarrassing and once that gets out, your life is ruined. It's pretty much social suicide,” said Lauren Kohler.
They're young, impressionable, and love their technology, but these teens know sexting has a dark side.
“It's the same thing as being like, ‘oh you need to have this drink to fit in at this party, like you need to drink oh, drink, drink, drink.' It's the same thing as saying ‘oh send me those pictures, send me those pictures, I really want those pictures. I really want you to drink,'” said Bauman.
Peer pressure fuels what lots of teens consider the 21st Century flirt.
“The scam part of it that really just infuriates a lot of us is that you'll have somebody that's talking to a teenage girl. ‘You're so pretty, you're so beautiful, you're so sexy. Come one, just show me a little bit,'” said Major Lowe. “But as soon as that picture is received by that person asking for it she becomes a ho. She's not beautiful, she's not a model you know, she's a ho.”
In fact, the Instagram account used to show the images that got out in Louisa used a special hashtag: THOT for ‘That Ho Over There.'
Once Lowe investigated, he found more than 100 teens involved in sexting. Even though every teen thought their sext would be private, some images got out.
“The people that we were really after were the people that started the Instagram site,” Lowe stated.
But they hid under online anonymity, and the Sheriff's Office never charged anyone in the case. “We didn't find anything that was unconsensual,” Lowe said.
Still, the case got the attention of the national magazine, The Atlantic, and drew focus from the Virginia State Crime Commission. An October 2014 report states: “sexting behavior by juveniles frequently meets the statutory definitions of child pornography.”
The possible penalties are very severe for behavior that many teenagers view as flirting or not a big deal. For consensual sharing, the recommendation is a reduced sentence, unless, somebody sends the picture into cyberspace.
“And that's called secondary dissemination and it's the secondary dissemination that law enforcement and prosecution is looking at, because that's when it goes beyond a consensual exchange of a photo,” Lowe said.
And can garner serious consequences, “You get charged for child pornography, either possession or distribution of child pornography,” said Milner.
“I mean it's going to stay with you forever. Like it might, even if it's not to your peers, if you're trying to get a job, like into college - it can research that kind of stuff,” Kohler stated.
“They don't really understand fully what they're doing but once you tie in that whole 'what you're doing is illegal,' that kind of adds a whole other level,” Taylor said.
So even though some teens say sexting is just the 21st Century flirt, the reality is they're underage, and that's flirting with the law.