Law enforcement agencies across the country, and in Jeffco, are struggling with the recent “sexting” craze among teenagers.
Jeffco District Attorney Scott Storey said his office has made more than 500 presentations at schools on dangers of the Internet and cell phones. That work has mainly been done by Mike Harris, who heads up Storey's child sex offender Internet investigations unit.
"We're seeing a dramatic increase with this type of stuff," Harris said. "I've been telling kids that phones are basically a portable computer, and all the rules that we have for a computer apply to the phone."
Those rules include: Don't give out personal information. Don't talk to people you don't know. And never send out pictures of yourself.
When it comes to “sexting” — sending sexually explicit messages or photos electronically, primarily between cell phones — Harris said today’s teenagers are operating under a different moral framework.
"Today's environment is so sexualized, our kids don't have the same perspective on their bodies and what is appropriate,” he said. “There's such a drastic change with the middle-schoolers and high-schoolers of today compared to years ago."
Harris recommends a product called My Mobile Watchdog, which allows parents to track the incoming and outgoing calls and text messages on their kids’ phones, including pictures.
Jeffco Public Schools Superintendent Cindy Stevenson said sexting is an issue at schools across the country, and she believes the problems will only get worse as technology continues to improve.
"It's interesting that so many of our kids don't understand they can't control what they send out over technology," Stevenson said. "Our job is to teach the ethics around that." Jeffco Public Schools tries to teach ethics as they apply to technology and strives to help students become good "digital citizens."
"But we can't monitor kids 24 hours a day," Stevenson said. "This has to be a partnership with parents. In schools and families, we have got to monitor what kids are doing, and we have to teach them what our expectations are."
A recent study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and CosmoGirl.com found that 39 percent of teens reported to have posted or texted sexually suggestive messages, and 48 percent reported having received such material. Twenty percent of teens have sent or posted nude or semi-nude pictures or videos of themselves; 25 percent of teen girls and 33 percent of teen boys say they have had nude or semi-nude images meant for someone else shared with them.