ADDISON COUNTY — Cell phones can serve as a vital public safety link between a child and a parent.
But as some Addison County families are learning, cell phones can also be used as a tool for producing and sending naked images from one teen to another, photos that once out of the sender’s hands can cause them torment in school and come back to haunt them later in life.
It’s called “sexting,” the act of taking a cell-phone image of oneself nude and transmitting it to another person or multiple parties. And even if done consensually, it is an illegal act when it involves a juvenile. Local law enforcement officials said they have seen a spike in sexting cases this year. The Addison Independent recently spoke with three county investigators now handling more than a half-dozen cases that they believe represent but a fraction of the sexting taking place in the area.
“What we are seeing is not even the tip of the iceberg,” said Ruth Whitney, who heads up the Addison County Unit for Special Investigations.
“According to the students we talk to ‘everybody’s doing it.’”
Many of the cases are being referred from area schools, which investigators credited with being proactive on the matter. This often occurs when a teen relationship goes south and one partner distributes intimate photos to humiliate the other partner.
According to state statute, it is illegal for minors (17 and younger) to transmit photos of their private areas to someone else. It is also illegal for a minor or adult to possess such photos of a minor. Minors determined to have been either transmitting or possessing such material shall be “adjudicated as delinquent” and can be prosecuted in family court and without running the risk of being placed in the state’s sex offender registry. Court diversion is often an option for such young offenders, particularly if they have no prior record, according to investigators. The transgression can be removed from the juvenile offender’s record when he or she turns 18, according to state statutes.
State law does protect from prosecution the recipient of an inappropriate image who never requested it and deletes it immediately.
But adults who transmit or possess photos featuring nude or partially nude minors can be prosecuted under child pornography laws, which carry possible fines and prison sentences.
In order to be considered indecent, the photo must feature the genital area of either gender. In addition, in the case of females, featuring the nipple and lower part of the breast is also off-limits.
And in some cases, the photos do not merely feature the flash of a body part.
“What I’ve found out, through my investigations, is that a majority of the images are disturbingly explicit,” Middlebury Police Det. Kris Bowdish said.
Whitney was shocked to see what she called “very provocative poses” exhibited by a young girl in the first sexting case she took on late last year. One of her cases involved a 13-year-old girl. Most have featured young women 14 and 15 years old. The photos are often accompanied by suggestive text messages.
“I was stunned,” Whitney said.
Addison County State’s Attorney David Fenster confirmed the recent spike in sexting cases.
“It’s concerning because it’s not clear that people involved realize it’s an offense,” Fenster said. “It is an offense, and it can have some very adverse consequences down the road.”
While first-time juvenile offenders can emerge from court with little more than a slap on the wrist, the nude photos can bring consequences for the victim long after the matter has been adjudicated. That’s because the provocative photo can literally last forever — especially if posted on the Internet, officials said.
“Imagine you are in middle school and all of your peers have seen naked images of you,” Mason said, noting this is an age group in which children are dealing with body image issues and sometimes fragile emotional states.
In December of 2009, 13-year-old Hope Witsell of Florida hanged herself after being persecuted by her peers following the spread of a topless photo of herself that she had sent to a prospective suitor.
That same year, 18-year-old Jessica Logan of Cincinnati took her own life after her ex-boyfriend e-mailed nude photos that she had sent him by cell phone.
“Kids of this age don’t quite understand the consequences involved,” Bowdish said.
Middlebury School Resource Officer Chris Mason recently handled a case in which the nude photo of a local teenage girl found its way from a cell phone to the Internet. That image now figures to haunt the girl in perpetuity.
“We try to tell these young people that when they get a little older and are applying for jobs, prospective employers are Googling potential candidates, and sometimes they are asking for passwords to their Facebook (accounts) to see what these people are all about,” Whitney said.
“Once the toothpaste is out of the tube, you can’t get it back in there.”
Authorities also are not positive if they can permanently delete inappropriate images from computers and cell phones.
“You can delete (the images), but people can recreate them,” Bowdish explained.
This means that cell phones used in sexting cases can be out of commission for quite a while.
“This can result in some unhappy kids and parents, because when we seize these cell phones, we can’t give them back, because we can’t be sure those images are permanently deleted,” Whitney said.
“And they are illegal images to possess,” Bowdish added.
Authorities are currently researching what might be done to allow for return of the cell phones, but it is a tricky question fraught with legal and privacy issues. So Whitney is currently holding four cell phones in evidence; Mason has three; and Bowdish has one.
“Right now, they are in evidence at least until the court cases — whether it’s juvenile or adult — are completed,” Whitney said.
“It’s possible they may never get them back.”
And people are misguided if they think they are protected by programs like “Snapchat,” which automatically deletes an electronic image a certain number of seconds after it is opened. Investigators note someone can take a screen shot of the image before it is deleted. And from there, the image could be posted on-line or sold to an out-of-country pornography site that domestic law enforcement can’t shut down.
Sexting cases are proving difficult and time consuming for law enforcement and prosecutors to take on. It can involve writing search warrants to seize the phone, then forensically examining what’s in the phone, then interviewing suspects and victims before taking the cases through the court process.
“And it generally snowballs,” Whitney said. “We get one report that comes in and then we find out after interviewing the people involved, more photos were sent to more people or more photos were received from other people. So what you think is maybe one or two kids involved can turn out to be a half-dozen or more.”
Alarmingly, some of the youths, when interviewed by police, say “What’s the big deal? Everyone is doing it,” said Bowdish, who quickly added, “Just because ‘everyone is doing it’ doesn’t mean it’s OK.”
Investigators have run into several cases in which juveniles have sent intimate photos of themselves to girlfriends or boyfriends who have in turn shared the material with others.
“I think the forwarding (of the photos) is the problem we are having,” Bowdish said. “We have teenagers who are in relationships and are in this ‘consenting’ exchange of photographs, but by the time we hear about it, it’s usually because it’s been forwarded to another person and it’s not OK.
“Tomorrow you might not be friends with that person, and then it’s out of your control,” she added, noting the fragility of some teen romances.
Mason sees the repercussions of bad break-ups while walking the halls of Middlebury schools.
“Teenage relationships can swiftly degenerate into hatred,” Mason said. Based on what he’s observed, girls and boys are sexting in about equal numbers, but the boys are most likely to share the photos of the girls.
Ironically, many teens seem to think it is more private to take an intimate photo of themselves and share it via cell phone than being in a room with somebody, according to Mason.
“It’s mediated by the equipment, by the devices,” Mason said of the photo. “Bizarrely, it is psychologically difficult for them to appreciate just how public, potentially, it is.”
A PARENT REACTS
The Addison Independent interviewed the Addison County parent of a teen whose sexting case is currently working its way through family court. The concerned mom is at peace with the fact that her child — a sender and receiver of nude images via cell phone — is being prosecuted for the offense, along with another involved party. Sexting is one of the few crime categories in which the juveniles featured in the photos are offenders as well as victims.
“It’s so dangerous and it’s so easy,” said the parent, who was tipped off about her child’s behavior.
The parent said her child engaged in sexting in spite of several prior family discussions about safe use of the Internet and electronics.
“Just because they said they wouldn’t (engage in sexting) six months ago, doesn’t mean that’s going to be their outlook in six months or nine month or 12 months,” the parent said. “Kids are being offered things for photographs. It can be a way to obtain alcohol or drugs. It can be a way for people to think they can attract suitors or people they are interested in. Teenagers are just so impulsive; they are not stopping to think.”
Area school officials are not only referring sexting cases to police, they are discussing the offense on campus as part of assemblies, special presentations and having experts in the field come in for some Q and A.
Bill Lawson, principal of Middlebury Union High School, said the issue is discussed as part of a health education credit students must obtain before graduation. He said he’s pleased that many students feel comfortable enough to volunteer information when they or their peers are in trouble.
“From time to time, (sexting) does occur, and we make sure its is handled properly,” Lawson said.
Andy Kepes, Mount Abraham Union High School principal, said sexting is addressed as part of the 10th-grade Human Development class and through an 8th-grade class dealing with bullying and harassment. Bristol police also offer cautionary advice on the subject when they visit the school.
But a lot of the education on this topic has to occur at home, police said.
Whitney said parents should talk to their children about appropriate use of their electronic devices from time to time, making oversight a condition of their possession of a cell phone and/or computer.
But some parents still prefer to take a hands-off approach.
“I have had parents say to me, ‘It’s my son or daughter’s private (phone), I don’t want to invade their privacy,’” Whitney said. “I have had parents ask me, ‘Why are the police involved? This is not a police matter.’”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]