"Sexting" has evolved from teens sending racy photos to one another to competitively collecting nude electronic photos of classmates like trading cards.
It's one of the most alarming trends Tucson High Magnet School Assistant Principal Chris Bonn has seen since he began working at the school three years ago, and it's so prevalent he says he finds sexually explicit photos at least once a week on phones confiscated from students for offenses unrelated to sexting.
"Kids are collecting these pictures like baseball cards," Bonn said. "It has turned into this contest to see how many pictures they can collect of their peers doing these inappropriate behaviors."
What's more problematic, Bonn said, is that the majority of students he deals with in sexting incidents are such willing participants.
"We get a wide variety of responses from students who are both sending and receiving these messages, but the most common is that of, 'What's the big deal?' " Bonn said.
Nearly a dozen sexting cases have been prosecuted by the Pima County Attorney's Office, but "there are hundreds of them out there. The schools just don't know what to do with them," Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall said.
She said law-enforcement agencies began bringing sexting cases to her office last fall. In December and February, LaWall met with school administrators, probation officers, prosecutors, psychologists and sociologists to discuss what's causing the phenomenon, how to best address it and ways to educate parents.
"It seems like there's some underlying disturbance going on that's causing kids to send naked pictures of themselves," LaWall said. "To me, this is abhorrent behavior.
"Of huge concern to me is the impact on our young people. They don't realize how dangerous an offense it is," LaWall said. "It could cause a young person to take their life because of the humiliation and mortification when the pictures are disseminated."
Teens don't realize that once a picture finds its way onto the Internet it will remain there forever, LaWall said.
In July 2008, Cincinnati resident Jessica Logan, 18, hanged herself when the nude photo she sent to her boyfriend found its way into the phones of teenagers at seven area high schools. Before she died, Logan was called a slut, a porn queen and a whore, media reports said.
Distressing local cases
One of the most distressing local cases for LaWall was that of a high school girl who allowed a group of young men to draw tattoos on her naked body. Photos of her were later spread throughout the high school. The distraught girl told school administrators about it only after she got into trouble in an unrelated incident, LaWall said.
In another local case, a school administrator who confiscated a 15-year-old boy's phone found photos of two classmates' breasts. Yet another teen was caught with a video of two young friends performing oral sex on each other.
In most cases, girls sent photos of themselves to their boyfriends and the boys later shared them.
Bad choices, not kids
Sexting is a recent phenomenon experts say is fueled by changing norms, lack of parental supervision and other factors, including the increasingly sexualized portrayal of teens in the media.
Sending sexually explicit images has become a normal part of teen life, much like getting a tattoo or a body piercing, said Chris Segrin, a University of Arizona psychology professor. Segrin took part in LaWall's February round-table discussion along with behavioral scientists Dennis Embry and Stephen Russell.
Also, teens are much more technologically advanced than their parents, Segrin said. A recent study showed 25 to 35 percent of teens can access the Internet on their phones, but their parents didn't realize it.
Some teens say their peers just have a relaxed attitude toward their bodies.
"They don't really care who sees because they feel like they're confident with their body and what they send," said Irene Madero, a 16-year-old junior at Tucson High.
Risky behavior and teenagers have gone together for years, but what adolescents are engaging in now is much different from what they did even a decade ago, said Dr. Charles Sophy, a leading psychiatrist specializing in children and families.
"Children have been given these ways to communicate but not the parameters to do it safely," said Sophy, who is based in Los Angeles and has teamed up with cell phone maker LG's awareness campaign about sexting.
"These are kids making bad choices," Tucson High's Bonn said. "They're not bad kids; they come from good households. But the parents aren't aware of what they're doing."
While LaWall declined to discuss the specifics of the dozen or so local sexting cases, she said her office has been forced to be creative when handling them because of the way current laws have been written.
The actual conduct of sexting constitutes a serious felony crime, LaWall said. Technically speaking, children could be charged with possession of child pornography or sexual exploitation of a minor, crimes that require offenders to register as sex offenders upon their conviction.
Rather than ignoring the problem altogether, as some jurisdictions have done, or treating teens too harshly, LaWall's prosecutors have been charging most of the teens with the misdemeanor crimes of "using a telephone to annoy, threaten or intimidate" or "contributing to the delinquency of a minor." They've also been allowing them to participate in a diversion program, giving them the opportunity to avoid having the conviction on their record, LaWall said.
The problem should be fixed by the end of this legislative session, LaWall said. Senate Bill 1266 would make it a Class 2 misdemeanor for a juvenile to transmit or possess explicit sexual material on an electronic communication device.
Because teens will continue to be funneled into diversion programs, LaWall's round-table group is developing materials to educate volunteers involved in the program about the sexting phenomenon, provide protocols to deal with the teenagers and give tips to parents.
LaWall said she'd also like to create a pamphlet about the problem that could be distributed countywide.
With the passage of Senate Bill 1266, LaWall said educators will be far more likely to report sexting so teens and their parents need to know the ramifications of such acts.
"If kids realize it's a criminal act for which they can be held accountable," LaWall said, "we're hoping that alone will prevent them from engaging in this behavior."