More and more teenagers are finding themselves getting in big trouble for sexting or exchanging nude selfies of themselves or others. The consequences are huge, ranging from humiliation to prosecution.
It’s the reason school officials in San Diego, CA sent students home for summer with a serious assignment: Don't sext. It's a message they reinforce with seminars and videos by a police foundation.
Sexting is a topic most kids already know something about yet many still ignore the message.
“If you take this category of teenagers 12 to 17, seven out of 10 have received some sort of unsolicited sexual something. It might be a text, might be a picture, might be a story," said Bob Lotter, of My Mobile Watchdog. "30-percent of the time, they will contain some kind of inappropriate picture.”
That was the case in a 2013 California sexting scandal that involved 30 students in six local high schools and one middle school.
Ally Pereria knows first hand the harm it can cause. She was a sexting victim.
“I was called ho, whore and slut in the hallways. People would re-enact the picture every time they passed me” Pereria said.
Her nightmare began at age 16 when the honor roll student from a close, loving family got a text from her ex-boyfriend promising to get back together if she sent him a topless photo. “I was a normal teenager, I was impulsive, I didn’t think anything of it, I just thought I was wanted, he wanted to see me, so me and my two friends we sent a picture of myself to him and he never answered it and by the next day it had gone viral, she said. "Six months after my picture, I even attempted suicide. I was just so lonely. The bullying hadn’t let up." Pereria now speaks to students across the country about the dangers of sexting.
“It can completely destroy their self-esteem. There’s a lot of shame, guilt, regret that leads to depression and anxiety," said Valerie Rock, a psychologist.
When young people don't police themselves, some say schools should. But their power is limited. There are narrow circumstances in Connecticut where a school can search a student’s cell phone. Laws may not solve the problem either. There already are anti- bullying laws in Connecticut. Yet cracking down on sexting and punishing offenders can be complicated. Right now, under some existing laws, if a victim like Ally sends a requested nude photo to a friend and they later distribute it, in many cases, it's the person who first sent the photo who could be prosecuted.
So, what is the best way to reach young people? Advocates say it's simpler than you think.
“Ultimately it comes down to the parents to teach them right from wrong," said Rock.
She adds parents need to recognize a phone is their child's link to the outside world. They need to monitor what is landing on, and leaving their child’s phone and computer. And there's software to help.
Lotter, whose software company has helped police nationwide secure almost 2,000 cyber-convictions, makes a consumer version called My Mobile Watchdog. Parents can install it on their child’s device.
“You say, 'look I’m just doing this to keep you safe.' As they are 14 and older and more concerned with their privacy, the parent has the ability to dial in levels of privacy. You don’t have to block Facebook, you don’t have to monitor all their messages but you have this forensic database.”
That database can also be used to catch and prosecute someone looking to harm your child.
Bottom line: experts say don't worry about offending your kid by monitoring them. Teenagers brains and their reasoning skills are not fully developed yet like those of an adult. And even if you are not tech savvy, there are computer programs and apps to make it easier to monitor your child's digital life.