Hundreds of Colorado high school students are facing child pornography charges for sexting their classmates nude photos — a practice that experts say has become widespread among teens and functions almost as normal part of courtship for today’s youth.
Though some states have enacted laws in recent years to deal explicitly with underage individuals texting nude photos — so as to not subject them to criminal statutes of creating and disseminating child porn — Colorado is not one of them. Fremont County District Attorney Tom LeDoux said at a press conference on Friday that students could face felony charges of child porn possession at the end of the investigation.
In some cases, including two high profile cases involving 18-year-olds disseminating photos, individuals risk being added to their state’s sex offender registry, which in some states is a lifelong designation that prevents offenders from living near schools, includes their names in publicly searchable databases, and requires them to notify authorities every time they move.
“It is a possibility that students will have to register as sex offenders,” LeDoux said, though he noted that they would be referred to juvenile court, according to the Denver Post.
The students at Cañon City High School were busted for a widespread sexting scandal involving hundreds of photographs hidden on apps disguised as calculators on students’ phones, according to LeDoux. Investigators will try to determine whether students were bullied or coerced into sexting, in which case they will be considered victims. “It was nothing, nothing compared to the magnitude of what was going on,” principal Brett Meuli said in the report. “We have hundreds of photos. Some are eighth-graders. When we became aware that some pictures were shared at school, it became a school issue.”
Experts say that somewhere between 25 and 35 percent of teens have sexted at some point, and for the vast majority, the outcomes are not negative. According to one researcher, Elizabeth Englander, author of the book Bullying and Cyberbullying, most students have reported that their experiences with sexting have not really resulted in any consequences, including bullying and harassment. “The picture isn’t passed around to everyone in world, they don’t get charged with a crime or in trouble with parents, and most of the time it just flies under the radar and nothing really happens,” she said.
In fact, Shaheen Shariff, author of the book Sexting and Cyberbullying: Defining the Line for Digitally Empowered Kids, said it had become much like prior generations’ “necking in the back seat of the car.”
“It’s a social activity they tend to get into, but the problem is they don’t realize that when the nude images are then distributed — and it’s very easy to them to be distributed online — it’s very hard to get rid of them,” she said. “Often they don’t think.“
Authorities in Colorado have suggested students’ kept caches of photos on their phones. “And once bullying starts, they’re victimized over and over again,” she said.
Short-term consequences from bullying and harassment can include depression and mental-health stress, Englander said. What’s less understood, at this point, is long-term effects of sexting on teens’ psycho-sexual development.
Meuli, the principal at Cañon City high school, expressed fear that students would harm themselves due to the emotional fallout from the sexting scandal. There have been high profile cases of teen suicides in recent years connected with sexting and bullying, and although Englander says emotional distress is not the norm, it is one of the most common outcomes when there are negative outcomes.
David Finkelhor, a sociologist at the University of New Hampshire and Director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, said that the reaction by adults — among law enforcement, school authorities, and parents — can sometimes be overly severe. Though sexting can lead to negative outcomes, it doesn’t necessarily indicate anything about teens’ sexual behavior.
In fact, though sexting had increased among young people, risky sexual behavior has become less common over the past decade, he said. The numbers of high schoolers who have had sex and who have had multiple partners are both down and the rate of teenage pregnancy is down, he said. “So despite the fact that you get episodes like this that make it look like sexual behavior among young people is out of control, that’s not what overall statistics suggest,” Finkelhor said. “This is perhaps a more sexually conservative generation than the past.“
Still, because of the way laws in some states are written, young people who sext can find themselves facing charges related to child pornography, which can, in severe circumstances, land them on sex offender lists. Finkelhor suggests that often that only happens when teens are using the images to seriously bully someone, including blackmail or defamation. “But when they are being exchanged, for example, by kids who are either in a romantic relationship with another youth or trying to start one, they don’t result in criminal charges,” he said.
All three experts agreed that kids didn’t come up with sexting in a vacuum — they’ve mimicked the ways in which adults now date and court. “I hear a lot of people saying, oh kids are just stupid to do this, and two points are important: there’s no evidence that kids do this more than adults do, and kids tend to copy things adults are doing,” Finkelhor said.
Authorities have begun to try and teach students about sexting to prevent problems, first by warning them of the legal dangers and trying to scare them with the idea that it would be humiliating if the photos were passed around, but neither approach really worked, Englander said.
An op-ed in the New York Times pointed out that some states, including North Carolina and Texas, have established programs in which teens can text their public health departments their questions about sex in order to get clear answers. In that way, Finkelhor says, using technology to help educate and prevent problems is a good solution. “We do need to incorporate some elements of modern technology and behavior into current education around sex education and bullying and safety, but I don’t think we’ve yet started to do it in a planned and educationally rigorous way,” Finkelhor said.
The investigation into the Cañon City High School scandal is expected to take a month before charges are announced.