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Rather than empty threats or judicial involvement, teens caught sexting need more education about appropriate online behavior and healthy relationship skills, which can come from parents, school officials and police officers.

At least once a week, Det. Rich Wistocki or one of his officers sits down with a teen caught sexting and lays out a series of consequences.

A curfew, community service, mediation and maybe even a research paper on appropriate online behavior. The teen's parents are included and must buy and install monitoring software for their teen's cellphone and computer.

"That's how children learn," says Wistocki with the Naperville Illinois Police Department's high technology crimes unit. "Swift and immediate consequences."

If the teen completes everything, the issue is resolved and the teen avoids criminal charges with potentially life-changing consequences.

"Our job is to protect these kids, not to make them sex offenders," says Wistocki, who helped amend Illinois law to provide out-of-court consequences for problematic juvenile behaviors like sexting. "They're not able to … understand the ripple effect that this is going to have on them. We need to protect them through education and some consequences."

The practice of "sexting" — sending explicit pictures or messages via phone or computer — often sends parents into a panic and pushes prosecutors into punishment mode. But experts say many teens don't see sexting as a problem, so threats of criminal charges don't register with them. And turning to the justice system often ends up being overkill.

Rather than fear tactics and felonies, experts advocate intervention and education that empowers teens, educates parents and better equips officers.

"It's everybody getting onto the same page," says Andrew Harris, an associate professor of in the school of criminology and justice studies at UMass Lowell and author of "Building a Prevention Framework to Address Teen “Sexting” Behaviors." "It's gotta be a partnership with the family, law enforcement and prosecutors, schools, families. Everyone's gotta be talking about this, addressing this in a well-rounded way."

"No big deal"

After a private evening with his girlfriend ended up as a video being passed around study hall and weekend parties, high school became a daily hell for Anders Hemdal.

"It really was very hard to cope with the fact that I knew a number of my peers had seen me in such a vulnerable way," said Hemdal of Pennsylvania, who was 16 at the time. "It was very upsetting to walk through the hallways and not know who had seen me. It really felt like I was walking through the hallway naked."

The video, which was filmed on a study abroad trip by a peer who shot from the roof of an adjacent building, disappeared after a week and Hemdal never even saw it, but he knows many others did.

The student did face some juvenile court consequences, but to Hemdal and his family, they seemed like a slap on the wrist, while Hemdal dealt with bullying, a loss of friends and even a breakup with his girlfriend of two years.

"I didn't get a lot of support from anyone, which is kind of disheartening," said Hemdal, who is now 18 and in his first year of college. "It really is crazy how much people just wanted to avoid the situation altogether. I think that everyone is used to the fact that it happens … (and it's) no big deal."

Like Hemdal, many adolescents don't worry about sexting until it involves them directly, and then it can be devastating. Hemdal has even started a nonprofit, Students Against Sexting, to spread the word, but many teens remain unaware of the trauma they can cause themselves and others.

It's hard to know just how many teens are actually sexting, but in a review of several studies, Harris and his co-authors pointed out the range: An oft-cited study from 2012 found that 9.6 percent of youth reported appearing in or creating nude or nearly nude images or receiving them. Another study from 2012 found that nearly 20 percent of teens have sent a sexually explicit photo, about twice as many have received one and more than 25 percent have forwarded one. A 2014 study even put sexting as high as 54 percent, although only 28 percent involved photographs.

"I hear about it a lot," one female teen from Massachusetts told Harris and his researchers. "I don’t know, it's just not frowned upon. It's weird because it's not, like, shocking when you hear that anymore."

Teens don't even call it "sexting" — it's just sending pics, says Harris. The term "sexting" is a media and legal creation. Perhaps a more appropriate label is "naked selfie," he says, though the term "selfie" was rarely heard when he and his group began researching in 2011. Now it's ubiquitous.

Looking at why

Regardless of what teens call it, experts say sending images to each other, whether scandalous or completely innocuous, represents the blending of normal adolescent sexual exploration with continual connectivity.

"Kids do it because they don’t get alone time with their significant other; they don't have wheels; they can't be with each other … so the next best thing … is intimacy of images," said Sameer Hinduja, a professor of criminology at Florida Atlantic University and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center. "I'm not condoning it; we just need to put ourselves into the minds of teens with their hormones raging and they're desperate for validation, love, affection."

Forty-four percent of teens sext between romantic partners while 34 percent said they sext as a way to flirt, according to a recent study from Drexel University.

Yet, problems arise when privately shared photos become widely distributed after a break up, resulting in embarrassment, shame and even potentially suicide in rare, tragic cases.

The Drexel study found that 8 percent of college students said they had experienced "humiliation or a tarnished reputation" at school because of sexting, and less than 1 percent reported bullying because of sexting. However, 71 percent reported knowing other teens who experienced negative consequences.

"I tell kids, just because you love them, doesn’t mean you have to do it," says Kevin Quinn, a school resource officer in Arizona and executive board member of the National Association of School Resource Officers. "I've been married for 20 years and my wife doesn't send me naked pics. It's the education … that this is not acceptable behavior. It's not love; it's really not. If they love you, they wouldn't ask you."

Once sent, the image is out there forever, with the potential to haunt teens when they apply to college, look for work or pursue future relationships.

"Even if your friend says, 'Oh, I deleted it,' nothing is really ever deleted," Quinn says. "Someone can always get that back...and one click, it goes out to the world."

Sexting laws

As a way to curb sexting, many states turn to the legal system.

Last month, Tasha Williams with the Utah Juvenile Defender Attorneys was working with a 15-year-old boy charged with sexting.

Because he was 15, his sending of naked images to another teenage boy and girl meant a class B misdemeanor for dealing in harmful material under Utah law, one of the first states to reduce juvenile sexting to a misdemeanor, not a felony.

Had the boy been 16 or 17, it would have been a more serious class A misdemeanor, and had he been 18, it would have become a third-degree felony. Thankfully, Williams said prosecutors agreed to throw out the charge in exchange for an admission of other wrongdoing.

"The younger the child, the less the culpability," Williams said. "But we're punishing the kids we're trying to protect. Kids don't think about consequences the way adults do. Instead of teaching them about why it's a bad idea, we're prosecuting them after they've done it; it's terribly backwards."

Only 20 states have adjusted their laws or created new ones to address sexting between minors, allowing for lesser charges or different types of adjudication.

Vermont allows teens who sext to be diverted to a juvenile program with no sex-offender registry requirements and a record expungement at 18. Rhode Island makes the first offense a misdemeanor and refers the teen to family court, also with no sex-offender registration.

Other states still rely on charges like "creation or possession of child pornography" or "transmission of sexually explicit images" — usually felonies that carry the potential of prison and possible sex-offender status as adults.

"I think what's necessary is a more enlightened approach to these behaviors, looking at the circumstance," says Justin Patchin, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center and a professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. "Clearly, a boyfriend and girlfriend in a relatively stable (relationship) … exchanging these kind of images — (while we) don't want them to do it — is a lot different than a stranger coercing images out of a minor that is being groomed. We shouldn't focus on a one-size-fits-all solution."

South Dakota unsuccessfully tried to pass a law in 2011 that would have distinguished between consensual or "experimental" juvenile sexting with "aggravated juvenile sexting" — situations when teens are coerced or bullied to send photos, which are then collected, shared or sold. Experts say that while aggravated cases are more rare, they merit prosecution.

In the Drexel study, one of the first to look at whether sexting laws are effective deterrents, researchers asked 175 college students about their past sexting habits and their opinions about consequences.

They found that while 54 percent of college students admitted to sexting as a minor, 61 percent were unaware that such sexts could be considered child pornography.

However, 59 percent of that naive group said that awareness of the laws "would have or probably would have deterred them from sexting."

"Given the steep legal penalties sometimes associated with youth sexting, and the apparent frequency with which youth are engaging in sexting," they wrote, "the lack of awareness or comprehension regarding such penalties remains a notable problem."

Education is the answer

New York's 2012 Cybercrime Youth Rescue Act allows teens caught sexting to avoid charges and take an online course and up to eight hours of education about sexting and cyberbullying. By the end of the program, teens should be able to define them both, describe consequences, evaluate their behavior and "create a personal code of future cyberconduct."

New Jersey started a similar program in 2011, the law stating that "the benefits to society in admitting the juvenile into this education program outweigh the harm done to society by abandoning criminal prosecution."

The teen's parents pay for the program that teaches the spectrum of consequences, now and later, legal and non, and the possible connection between sexting and bullying.

"Our office has taken a very proactive approach in educating school (kids) about sexting," said Mary K. Pyffer, first assistant prosecutor in the Gloucester County Prosecutor's Office. Since 2012, detectives have made 50 to 60 presentations each year to local schools.

Prosecutors hope that's one of the reasons the number of juveniles actually charged with sexting was low last year, only five or six teens who were then diverted, Pyffer said. Often, schools choose to handle sexting situations themselves.

For Wistocki in Illinois, education is a three-pronged effort that begins with law enforcement. Occasionally, he sees officers ignore sexting cases because they don't want to involve the justice system, or officers who become overly harsh because they don't understand the world of teens.

He explains how a "station adjustment", the out-of-court contract between police, parents and teens, can provide immediate and appropriate consequences. And with a recidivism rate of 5 percent, "it definitely works," he said.

Then it's time to work with parents. During workshops Wistocki reminds them that there is no such thing as "privacy" for teens who are using phones or other Internet-enabled devices.

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Even if teens aren't taking and sending pictures themselves, they will most likely see some or have them forwarded to them. That's where monitoring software can come in handy, as well as ongoing conversations about appropriate behavior online and off.

With teens, Wistocki says it's about giving them the tools to say no, whether that's bluntly or with humor. Then teens need to hear from parents, grandparents, school officials, police officers, and hopefully their peers that it's OK to say no.

"When you empower the parents and kids then you train law enforcement," Wistocki says, "that is a recipe for stopping the spread of sexted pictures."

sisraelsen@deseretnews.com