SALT LAKE CITY — To some it's a sign of affection. To some it's flirting. And to others, it's just what their generation does.
But what many high school students are shocked to discover is that sending a nude selfie to another person can also be a felony crime.
"You could be charged with creating and distributing child pornography, even though it’s just a picture of yourself. If you are the boyfriend with that picture on the phone, you could be charged with being in possession of child pornography,” said Donald S. Strassberg, a professor at the University of Utah's Department of Psychology.
The issue of sexting teenagers is not new. But according to Utah school and police officials, the issue is so widespread that many teens just accept it as commonplace for today's generation of high schoolers.
Unified police detective Jerry Byam talks to a student at Taylorsville High School on Monday, March 13, 2017. According to Utah school and police officials, sexting is so widespread that many teens just accept it as commonplace for today's generation of high schoolers. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
School officials say, to a lesser degree, they have also dealt with sexting issues in junior high and middle schools.
But while many teens believe sending or receiving nude photos is harmless, most don't see the potential problems such actions can create until it gets to the point that police become involved.
"This is a huge problem and seems to be a normal behavior in school today. We spend a great deal of time with these cases because the pictures that are being shared are usually of juveniles, therefore it is classified as child porn. Our worry is that if we don’t recover the pictures and get them deleted from the phones, the pictures could end up in the hands of a sexual predator, or the pictures could be used against each other in the future," said Unified Police Sgt. Dan Moriarty with the Special Victims Unit.
"We also find that the pictures are shared with so many other students, until one is shared with the wrong person and then it becomes an issue."
"If you think saying that you didn't know it was against the law to send or receive nude photos of someone who is underage will spare you the consequences, you are wrong," said West Valley police spokeswoman Roxeanne Vainuku.
A girlfriend and boyfriend may not see the harm in exchanging pictures, especially if they are the same age. But when that picture gets passed around to others — or the boyfriend and girlfriend break up — other problems ranging from distribution to cyberbullying to even extortion and blackmail can arise, according to police and school officials.
Granite School School District spokesman Ben Horsley said there have been at least 14 "major" cases of sexting that have been investigated in his district in the past four years. A major case is defined as "multiple people had access to dozens and dozens of photos, sometimes perpetrated by multiple individuals posting photos of themselves, or in some cases just one person," he said.
In one case, Horsley described a boy and a girl who had broken up. "She had literally given her boyfriend hundreds of photos and videos" while they were dating, he said. "The threat was made that those would be made public."
In Cottonwood Heights, police say they are called to investigate a sexting case once a week on average.
"A lot of times (teenagers) don’t realize how serious it really is. They don’t think of the possibility that it’s going to go to 500 other people they know at school," said Cottonwood Heights Police Sgt. Ryan Shosted. "We want people to know there are significant repercussions."
Likewise, the Weber County Sheriff's Office has detectives called weekly to investigate a sexting case at a school.
On just one day last week, three search warrant affidavits were unsealed from three different police agencies investigating sexting cases at three separate high schools.
At Alta High School a male student was investigated for sharing an inappropriate video on Snapchat with eight female students, the warrant states. One girl told investigators that the boy "has shown her naked pictures of other Alta High School students in the past."
At Weber High School, police were called to investigate a video of a 15-year-old girl and a 17-year-old boy engaged in sexual activity that was being passed around by fellow students.
"Weber High School has also been conducting an investigation into this, along with investigating a harassment complaint from the victim in this case," an affidavit states.
Other police departments have reported cases where a student threatens to send compromising photos to a teenager's parents unless more photos are sent.
Authorities warn that the willingness of teens to send nude selfies has also attracted adult predators, many who pose online as teenagers.
• Isaac Dylan Kemp, 44, of Draper, currently faces 107 felony charges in two states for allegedly posing as a teen boy online and enticing juvenile girls to send hundreds of pictures and videos of themselves to him using the Kik messenger app.
• On March 1, Eric Robert Brown, 27, of Plain City, was charged in Weber County with 10 felonies for enticing girls between the ages of 13 and 15 in three states to send him nude photos via Facebook Messenger, according to charging documents.
• In January, Jacob Riley Peck, 26, of Salt Lake City, was charged in 3rd District Court with rape of a child and sodomy of a child, first-degree felonies. Police say Peck came in contact with a 13-year-old girl through Snapchat.
"'They talked as friends and he started texting naughtier things and she played along,'" the girl told police in court documents. "(The girl) admitted to sending photos of herself in her underwear and bra at Jacob's request in her Snapchat account."
The two later met at a park in South Jordan where the teen was raped, the charges state.
"(Sexting teens) seems to be a huge problem and one that people just don’t understand the potential problems that can occur," Moriarty said.
Strassberg became interested in finding out how widespread sexting had become several years ago when one of his own assistants got called by his son's school to come to the office because nude pictures were discovered on his son's phone.
He has since conducted two studies on high school sexting habits. For his studies, Strassberg defined "sexting" as the sending of photos showing genitalia, buttocks or breasts.
His first study collected data in 2008 and was published in 2011. A Utah high school with more than 600 students eventually agreed to have its students surveyed anonymously.
Sexting studies | Aaron Thorup, Deseret News
According to the study, nearly 50 percent of the boys and 31 percent of the girls said they had received a sext photo at some point, while 18 percent of boys and 17 percent of girls admitted they had sent one.
The reason more boys were receiving sext messages than girls? "The boys were much more likely to forward these pictures to other boys," Strassberg said.
He compared it to a person standing on a street corner in a trench coat flashing people as they walk by. If a man flashed a woman, she would call police, Strassberg said. "If there’s a woman outside in a trench coat and opens it up and reveals herself as a guy is going by, he calls his friends,” he said.
Strassberg went back to the same school in 2013 and conducted a second study that was published in 2015. Between his first and second survey, the issue of sexting and the consequences had become much more prevalent in the news. The school had even put together a presentation of its own to emphasize the dangers of sexting.
Despite raising the awareness level, Strassberg said the new results went down only slightly.
More than 40 percent of boys and 30 percent of girls reported receiving a sext, while 16 percent of boys and 14 percent of girls reported sending one.
Horsley noted that it's not just one particular group of students that's doing it.
"It is across the board. We see it in high-income homes. We see it in low-income homes. We see it spanning a variety of cultures in Granite District,” he said.
"It is interesting to note that, even among those describing themselves as 'extremely religious,' almost 6 percent acknowledged having sent a nude sext and over 10 percent said they had received one," Strassberg said in his study.
As part of the study, the students were asked why they send naked selfies.
"They do it for fun, they say. They’re doing it because someone asked them to. They’re doing it to get somebody to like them better. They’re doing it because someone sent them one. For many, it seems it has become a way of flirting,” Strassberg said.
Unified police detective Jerry Byam and a pair of students walk into the media room at Taylorsville High School on Monday, March 13, 2017. According to Utah school and police officials, sexting is so widespread that many teens just accept it as commonplace for today's generation of high schoolers. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
The explosion of sexting can be chiefly attributed to advances in technology. Strassberg's study found that 93 percent of the students he surveyed owned their own cellphone. And every phone has a camera.
"It has become so easy to do this,” he said. 'It’s part of the culture for kids to text. It’s just become so normative."
Twenty to 30 years ago, teens might give a boyfriend or girlfriend a Polaroid photo of themself, Strassberg said.
"That’s as far as it went. But when it becomes so easy, and so normative, to take pictures with your cellphones and to send them on to your friends, I think a natural extension of that was, ‘Well, my boyfriend really wants to see pictures of my breasts. Easy enough.’ And with selfies being so popular, too, people taking pictures of themselves, I just think it was a very natural next step,” he said.
Another factor is what Strassberg calls the "normalization of nudity" in today's society. Children are exposed to it everywhere.
"These days you just Google it on your phone,” he said.
Adds Horsley: "Because pornography is so commonplace, these kids have grown up in a world where this is what you do. When you care about somebody or you’re in a relationship, you share these types of images.
"These kids are just in a society and a culture where it’s not frowned on any more and they can be a lot more open with these types of behaviors," he said.
"I think its become so acceptable and so commonplace in their generation, a lot of them do it because all their friends do it,” added Weber County Sheriff's Lt. Nate Hutchinson.
In one of the search warrants unsealed last week, Cottonwood Heights police were called to investigate the case of a girl who showed another student nude pictures of herself in order to prove that she wasn't "fat."
"(The student) stated she takes and maintains the photographs on the (mobile device) to remind her 'that she looks good,'" the affidavit states.
Most of the students in the study said they knew they'd get in trouble if they were caught. Some were even aware that they could face criminal charges. But Strassberg said, "A significant number of those kids are still doing it anyway."
Those teens aren't deterred by the potential consequences, in part because they don't fully understand them, and in part because many don't believe they'll be caught, he said.
"Think of the programs trying to get teenagers not to smoke, to get teenagers not to drink, teenagers not to do drugs, (or) if you’re going to drink don’t drive. Those programs are only modestly effective. Programs to get kids to be sexually abstinent are remarkably ineffective," Strassberg said.
Hutchinson concurred that lecturing students on the potential legal consequences or the possible dangers of sexting doesn't seem to deter them much.
Strassberg believes continuing to educate students — both at school and in their homes — is the only way the sexting issue will ever get better. In Strassberg's opinion, sexting should be part of a school's sex education curriculum.
"Parents need to be more vigilant, more nosy, more a part of (their student's) online social life," Hutchinson said.
"The consequences surrounding the use of cellphones is a subject that parents simply can't afford not to discuss with their kids," added Vainuku.
Unified police detective Jerry Byam talks to students at Taylorsville High School on Monday, March 13, 2017. According to Utah school and police officials, sexting is so widespread that many teens just accept it as commonplace for today's generation of high schoolers. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret Newss
Horsley said parents need to also be aware of apps that are designed to look like one thing, such as a calculator, but are actually being used for inappropriate photos. Furthermore, apps such as Snapchat in which a picture is deleted after a short time, can be manipulated by taking screen shots and saving the photos, he said.
In fact, Horsley noted, "The more we seem to educate on this, the more it seems to go underground."
Brighton High School Principal Charisse Hilton said parents should always follow their children on their social media accounts. However, she noted it's common for students to have more than one Facebook or Twitter account with one set up primarily for parents and relatives, and the other used for friends without a parent's knowledge.
But it's important, Horsley said, to continue educating both students and their parents. The Granite School District is currently finishing a film that will be shown to all students that addresses the dangers of sexting. Students who have been victims, and also those who have been arrested, agreed to be interviewed for the project.
Hilton also pointed to the Utah NetSmartz program, sponsored by the Boys and Girls Clubs of Utah and the Utah Attorney General's Office. NetSmartz offers presentations to schools to help students understand the dangers of cyberspace, such as sexting, cyberbullying and internet predators.
Strassberg is currently finalizing a study on the sexting habits of college students. He said the preliminary numbers show even higher numbers than in high school.
It never goes away
Both police and school officials concede the likelihood of a sexting teenage boyfriend and girlfriend being charged with a serious felony is low. Police say the goal is mainly to make sure the students get the proper resources they need to help them and educate them.
In many cases, parents find out their teenager has been sending or receiving sext messages, but they decide to handle it themselves rather than get police involved.
"Most instances of sexting are never reported to police or other authorities. Even among reported cases, legal consequences are the exception," Strassberg noted in his study.
But while the legal ramifications may go away, in many cases the compromising pictures do not, which creates other problems.
"More common than legal consequences of sexting, but also potentially serious (especially for adolescents), are the damages to reputation and self-esteem that can occur when explicit cellphone photos are made public, i.e., when they are subsequently used by their recipients to embarrass or otherwise harm the subject of the photo, a form of cyberbullying," according to the study.
"There is little good data on how often this occurs or how serious the psychological consequences typically are. There have been anecdotal reports, however, of attempted suicides as a consequence of sexting gone wrong and several, apparently very uncommon (but well-publicized) instances of teens successfully taking their own lives following explicit photos they sent.
"Once a sext has been sent, the sender has virtually no control over who, or how many, will eventually come to have that picture on their cellphone," Strassberg wrote in his study.
"It’s there forever. It’s never going away,” Horsley said of pictures once they're put into cyberspace.
"We all need to remember, but especially minors, that once we send anything on the internet or via text message, there is no taking it back," Vainuku added.
Today, many colleges and businesses will conduct enhanced searches on the internet of their applicants, Horsley said. And some have lost jobs or have been rejected for scholarships because old pictures have come back to haunt them.
"It’s really hard for a kid to see five years down the road and say, ‘Wow, I’m going to be 21 and these kinds of things will start having a negative impact on my life,'” he said.
"A lot of decisions we make are based on our life experiences. And in high school, you don’t have the life experiences that a person with a family has,” Shosted said.
"This has such a significant impact people’s lives both now and later. They will regret it."