Sexting scandals shine spotlight on increasingly prevalent problem

Sexting, the phenomenon of taking, sending, receiving or displaying nude photographs of minors via cellphone, email, blog or other online communication, is something local teens say is becoming more prevalent in area schools and often has an adverse effect on the reputation of the person doing the sending.

Daniel Casper, a 17-year-old Lakota East senior, said he asked a friend about a girl he met, and they replied that “she’s nice but … she sent pictures last year.”

“It kind of lowered that person in my mind,” Casper said. “It definitely has a negative effect on most people’s views.”

Casper said what prevents him and other students from engaging in such behavior is the realization of possible after effects.

“Even if you send out a picture over Snapchat, and you think, ‘Oh, it will go away,’ there’s ways for them to keep it and it won’t go away,” he said. “Then even if you trust the person then, if something falls through and it doesn’t end up working out, then they can turn their backs on you and that’ll ruin everything.

“It can literally be sent out to the entire world.”

Some experts have equated sexting as “the new flirting” among teenagers, behavior that’s been made easier with the rise of new photo vault phone apps that allow them to hide pictures and information from their parents.

Casper said he knows of at least one such student.

“He just makes some poor decisions sometimes,” he said. “He has apps like that to hide photos and stuff like that in a separate lockbox. It’s not anything that bad in his eyes.”

In the Colorado sexting case, students hid at least some of the photos using an app that looks like a calculator, and punched a series of numbers to reveal them.

Other apps automatically, and secretly, download any photo shared via Snapchat, a program designed to automatically delete a photo after it is viewed anywhere between 1 and 10 seconds.

Katie McKearin, an 18-year-old Lakota East senior, said she first became aware of the inherent dangers of sexting in middle school, when a presentation emphasized the permanence of such photos.

“They just said basically stuff would come back to haunt you and just don’t talk to people who ask you … if they’re going to ask you things like that,” she said.

McKearin said she knows of a schoolmate who was asked for a nude photo and believes they went through with the request.

As for which teens are sending the photos, “it depends on which group you hang out with more,” she said.

“I think that people with the less solid friend groups are more likely to (send nude photos),” McKearin said.

Butler County Prosecutor Michael Gmoser said sexting is nothing new. It started decades ago, even before cellphones, in a more primitive fashion: Polaroid cameras.

Cases in Butler County, fortunately, have been isolated and few and far between, but “technology has enhanced the opportunity for some really bad things to happen,” Gmoser said.

“They (cases of sexting) sprout up like dandelions and we go through and use the Round Up on them and get everybody aware of the fact that this is going to be a real problem for you,” he said.

A typical school-age sexting ends up in the court system when a child reports it to his or her parents, then police and school officials investigate and determine what charges are warranted.

“We, as prosecutors, pick it up from there,” Gmoser said.

So is sexting a crime? No, according to the Ohio State Bar Association, which said although many states have laws specifically addressing sexting between minors, some concerns expressed by both law enforcement and free-speech advocates have thus far prevented proposed sexting laws from being enacted in Ohio.

“The only laws currently on the books are those governing child exploitation,” according to association posting. “In addition, Ohio lawmakers passed a bill requiring schools to have policies and procedures for handling harassment, intimidation and bullying, including cyber-bullying.”

Under Ohio law, sexting may result in two potential felony charges, pandering sexually oriented matter involving a minor, a fourth-degree felony, and illegal use of a minor in nudity oriented material or performance, which can result in second degree felony (transferring material), fourth degree felony (consenting to photographing) or fifth degree (possessing or viewing the material).

That’s when “real heavy penalties” come into play, Gmoser said, including being labeled as sex offenders.

“We’re talking about exploitation of children and those are going to be dealt with severely and seriously,” he said. “The penalties are really severe and the sexual (predator) reporting requirements for offenders, it can be a lifetime.”

For a juvenile, being arrested for such actions, either possession of an image or distribution of it, can mean a sealed record, judicial censures and some type of community control or probation, as opposed to incarceration.

“They are usually handled in house, in our local court system,” Gmoser said. “It’s an instructional thing, as opposed to a penal thing.”

That’s especially important for young people who “don’t really get it” when it comes to the possible ramification of such actions.

“They think that they’re going to live forever, and they’re not going to be embarrassed, right? And then all of sudden they start to realize that ‘Geez, you mean I could be getting a job somewhere and somebody would actually see me with no clothes on?’” he said. “Then the lights starts going off. Once we have a little educational flurry of activity and the threat of a lot of problems in juvenile court that are associated with it, they fortunately were able to contain it in juvenile court where it belongs.”

That message starts to resonate with teens who are caught sexting at 15, as opposed to when they are adults.

Recent studies have found that 28 percent of teens engage in sexting, and one study by an associate professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch found that girls were significantly more likely than boys to have been asked to send an image of themselves. They also were nine times more likely to receive such a request, the study found.

Findings also suggest that children engaged in sexting behaviors are more likely to show symptoms of depression, substance abuse, suicidality and general mental health issues.

Paul Flaspohler, a Miami University associate professor of clinical psychology, said data suggests that some of the pressure students face to engage in sexting is more along the lines of dating abuse, not the pressure experienced via typical peer pressure or bullying.

“The kind of pressure that students may face around sexting often occurs within intimate relationships,” Flaspohler said. “Whether there’s a power difference in there or not, I guess one could assume that there might be, it would be considered more dating violence than bullying.”

The challenge, he said, is that psychologists must understand the behavior itself before they can develop interventions that would treat them.

“What’s happened in this field, in particular, is that the technology is changing so fast that folks who are interested in developing interventions really have a hard time keeping up,” Flaspohler said. “People who are on the cutting edge of doing this research now are still looking at bullying and sexting on Facebook when kids have moved so far past that.”

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