Local cases show perils of 'sexting' by teens

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Frank Schultz
Saturday, February 8, 2014

Kids will be kids, but what about kids with smartphones?

The handheld devices have taken communications to a new level. In less than a minute, a girl can send a photo of herself bare-chested, as happened in a 2012 case investigated by Janesville police.

And a boy can take a picture of his genitals and send it to a girl, which happened in the same case.

Reports indicate police handled the case by talking to parents on both sides.

The boy's mother had no idea what was happening until an officer told her, the report indicates.

The girl's mother had no idea until the girl's sister found the boy's photo on a home computer.

The parents told police the relationship would end immediately. Police did not take the case any further, reports indicate, but they could have.


Consider the case of two rural Rock County teens. A 17-year-old boy asked the 14-year-old girl for nude photos of herself. Her parents discovered the young couple's emails and alerted the Rock County Sheriff's Office, according to a search warrant request.

The search warrant yielded cellphones and a tablet device on which investigators hoped to find images.

The girl, questioned by a detective, admitted she had sent the boy suggestive, nude pictures of herself.

These teens used email to communicate, and in one case the girl used the boy's iPad tablet to take a photo before returning the device to him, the document indicates.

The boy could be charged in adult court under Wisconsin law. The search warrant indicates he was being investigated for possession of child pornography, a felony.

Child-porn crimes have been charged in many jurisdictions around the country when police arrest teens for possessing on their phones sexual images from their romantic partners.

“The vast majority of instances seem to occur as part of adolescent courtship rituals during an era where cellphones, texting, sending digital pictures are mainstays in youth culture,” wrote Justin Patchin and Sameer Hinduja of the Cyberbullying Research Center.

“… The growing sentiment is that youth should not be prosecuted using laws that were intended to protect them from adults,” the authors continued. “We agree with this perspective, as teenagers who unwittingly engage in this behavior should not be placed on sexual offender registries as that will largely ruin their life potential.”


Patchin, a UW-Eau Claire criminologist who has trained police and the FBI, is co-author of one of the many studies that have found significant numbers of youths admitting they sent naked or semi-naked photos of themselves to others.

The practice is called sexting.

Patchin's 2010 survey of 4,400 middle and high school students in a large public school district found 12.9 percent had received such images from someone at their school.

Nearly 8 percent of students admitted sending such photos, according to the study.

The proportion of students sending such images increased with age, to around 17 percent for 18-year-olds.

“We also noted that boys and girls were equally as likely to send naked images, while boys were significantly more likely to report receiving them,” the authors wrote.


Patchin advises teens to delete sexts from classmates as soon as they receive them to avoid criminal charges or being placed on a sex-crime registry. The advice has been controversial.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says juveniles should report sexts to adults.

Telling a trusted adult “is generally good advice for a lot of problems you run into, however, in the case of a naked photo of an under-aged youth, this can be devastating for all involved,” Patchin wrote in a 2011 blog.

“For example, if you show the image to a teacher, he or she is likely required by law to report it to the police. Teachers who don't can lose their teaching license and/or be fired. If they don't know what to do and seek guidance from a fellow teacher, they could get into even more trouble,” Patchin wrote.

“For example, if you hand your cellphone with the nude image over to the teacher, and he or she shows another teacher, both teachers (and you) could be charged with possession of child pornography …

“In some cases you could even end up on state sex offender registries.”

Larry Magid of SafeKids.com agrees with Patchin in some instances but writes:

“There are situations where parents, teachers and in some cases even law enforcement should get involved. Examples include when sexting is used to extort or pressure someone into doing something they wouldn't otherwise want to do or when a person who receives a sext forwards it to a number of other people.

“There have also been some cases where adults are encouraging minors to send them sexually explicit images.”

Patchin agrees juveniles should not delete sexts that come from adults and should contact a trusted adult as soon as possible.

In a phone conversation with The Gazette, Patchin noted that images shared by two teens in a romantic relationship can and often do get distributed to others.

In two prominent U.S. cases, girls whose photos were distributed were subject to cruel abuse from peers and eventually took their own lives, Patchin noted.

Patchin advises parents to gauge their children's maturity when deciding when the child should get a cellphone.

“We usually advise parents to ease them into it, so don't provide the latest iPhone to an 8-year-old,” Patchin said.

Parents should educate their children about the risks involved, and at certain ages, children should be told to expect their phones will be checked, Patchin said.

Later, teens who are mature enough should be given privacy and shown trust, “and hopefully you've taught them the right morals and values,” Patchin said.


The nature of sexting is likely to change as cellphone “apps” are developed.

Snapchat, for instance, allows a photo to be sent to another person, and the photo disappears in seconds.

Some might find this to be the perfect app for sexting, but “now most people believe it's not really gone. It's still stored on the cellphone,” Patchin said.

Software exists that can resurrect the image, or the receiver can take a screen shot—record an image of the phone screen—to preserve it, Patchin said.

Most now understand that Snapchat photos might be preserved, but someone new to it might be lulled into a false sense of security, Patchin said.

A variety of texting applications also have come on the market. They offer a variety of features that regular texting does not. One advantage, from a teen's point of view, is that parents might not know to check for texting apps when they check their cellphones, Patchin said.

One texting app called Kik was part of a recent sexual assault in Janesville, according to police.

Police say 20-year-old Nicholas W. Ackerman met a 13-year-old girl via Kik, which allows users to contact other Kik users who are strangers.

The girl's mother found out and made the girl remove Kik from her phone, but the two continued to communicate, according to a criminal complaint filed in Rock County Court last month.

After many days of texting, Ackerman got the girl to agree to meet him after school, according to the complaint.

The girl got into Ackerman's car in a parking lot on Center Avenue, and he drove to the dead end of South Washington Street near the Monterey Bridge, and that's when the girl said she tried to get out of the car but found the doors were locked, according to the complaint.

She told him she didn't want to have sex, but they did in the back seat, the complaint states.

At the hospital, a gynecologist was called in to help with the sexual assault examination because the girl was injured during sex, the complaint states.


“Ask questions. Ask your kids what they're doing, where they're going and who they're interacting with,” Patchin said.

If you notice an app on your child's phone that you've never heard of, ask what it is and why she is using it, Patchin said.

“The key is to keep the open line of communications between parent and child,” Patchin said.

“But it is hard to keep up,” he added. “It's hard for me to keep up, and I live and breathe this stuff.”

Patchin and Hinduja wrote that schools should work with parents and police when cases arise and should make it clear that the school will discipline students who distribute sexting images.

“Our prevention and response efforts are going to be less than ideal if we cannot effectively counter what society is hammering into the minds of adolescents, the researchers wrote.

“If the dominant message our kids are hearing is that teen sexuality leads to romantic love, personal fulfillment, popularity, and celebrity status with very little (if any) public or personal fallout, they will continue to push the proverbial envelope, and the line between right and wrong in this area will be increasingly obscured.”

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