When Douglas County Deputy Jay Martin first started teaching about relationships, digital safety and substance abuse prevention, maybe one high school student in each of his classes would raise his or her hand when asked who had participated in sexting.
“Now, over half my class is raising their hands,” said Martin, an instructor in the Y.E.S.S., Youth, Education and Safety in Schools, program, created in 2009 by the Douglas County School District and the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office to educate students and parents on substance abuse, teen relationships and internet safety.
With access to infinite online content, research shows young people are engaging in riskier behaviors such as sexting, the act of sending or receiving sexually explicit messages or nude photos through text messages and on other digital devices.
In a report published in April by JAMA Pediatrics, a peer-reviewed medical journal, authors studied 110,380 participants under 18 years old. The average age was 15. Results revealed 14.8 percent had sent a sext, 27.4 percent had received a sext, 12 percent had forwarded a sext without consent and 8.4 percent had a sext forwarded without consent.
Mental health experts say that exposing young people to sexually explicit images can skew their perception of healthy intimacy and relationships. Educators in Douglas County have seen that some teens are becoming desensitized to sexting.
They think “sending and receiving nude photos is no big deal,” Martin said.
Many young people are unaware of the repercussions of sexting. In Colorado, sexting among juveniles can be a Class 1 misdemeanor charge with a possible sentence of six months in jail, a $500 fine or both; a Class 2 misdemeanor, which carries a minimum sentence of three months in jail, a $250 fine or both; a civil infraction, which requires participation in an educational program; or a petty offense, which differs depending on the charge but could include jail time or a fine. In some extreme cases, a juvenile may have to register as a sex offender.
“Legally, that is considered child pornography,” said Apryl Alexander, clinical assistant professor at the University of Denver Graduate School of Professional Psychology, of cases that involve aggravating factors. “Kids are being arrested and going on a sex-offender registry from taking a picture and sending it.”
Teen sexting was a controversial topic during last year’s state legislative session, when lawmakers introduced a bill that would lessen the penalties of sexting, which used to be considered sexual exploitation of a child, a felony that carries a jail sentence, fine or both, and requires registration as a sex offender. The new law gives prosecutors the discretion to decide where a case fits.
The law followed controversial cases of sexting in Colorado that left prosecutors with just two options: a felony charge or no charge. In 2015, police found hundreds of nude photos shared between students at a high school in Cañon City, southwest of Colorado Springs. The students involved weren’t charged with anything because investigators found no “aggravating” factors, including any adult involvement, coercion, bullying or posting of pictures to the internet, multiple news outlets reported at the time.
Alexander, who has worked with adolescents who engage in sexting, encourages parents to monitor and talk about kids’ social media use. She recommends using www.connectsafely.org, a website that details the latest apps and social media trends.
“Some of those apps are becoming a little more risky,” said Alexander. “But all the sites in general have some risk of some vulnerability with these younger children.”