AUBURN, Maine — Sexting scandals involving teens have made headlines across the country recently — in Colorado, Tennessee and here in Maine.
According to the Lewiston Sun Journal, last week, 15-20 students at St. Dominic Academy in Auburn were disciplined for a sexting game in which boys competed to collect the most images from teen girls.
Why do they do it and what should parents do? Lots of kids text on their phones — but just how often are they sexting?
"This is extremely prevalent — it's in every school," says Chris Tupper, a detective with the Maine State Police Computer Crimes Unit.
He says kids send sexually explicit images of themselves to others as early as 8 or 9 years old. In general, he says, those who send photos are predominantly girls, and they're also the ones most likely to be adversely affected.
"They send it out because they want to feel sexy, they feel pressure, or they think it's no big deal, it's a joke," he says, "or a combination of those."
"It's become part of courtship and romance and intimate relationships these days," says David Finkelhor, a sociology professor at the Univeristy of New Hampshire and director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center.
He says one reason young people may sext is because they're modeling behavior on what some adults do. And he says there can be valid reasons for sexting.
"Part of adolescence is learning how to become intimate with other people and learn about sexual behavior," Finkelhor says. "In some ways, sexting is a way of managing some of the anxieties around it. It's becoming intimate without having to actually be in the presence of someone where something can get out of control."
Of course, sexting can also be harmful, he says — especially when it's the result of coercive environments where kids pressure, trick or dare peers to send images. Tupper says kids need to remember that once an image is sent out on the Internet, there's little police can do to take it down, even if they locate the person to whom it was sent.
"If that original recipient had sent it out or posted it to a revenge site, it's out there forever, and that's something that can be extremely embarrassing," he says.
And Tupper says Maine's juvenile system isn't really set up to deal with sexting. Manufacturing, possession or dissemination of sexually explicit material or child pornography is illegal and carries severe penalties. But Tupper says authorities are usually reluctant to label a juvenile as a sex offender for making a bad decision.
"We either have the sledge hammer, or telling mom and dad," he says.
Just as kids need to be educated about drugs, alcohol and sex, Tupper says, technology should also be tacked onto the list.
Matt Theodores of the Yarmouth-based organization Boys to Men says sexting is one of the issues the group educates boys about in its school-based programs. One of the lessons is how to intervene to prevent a situation from escalating.
"It's a matter of actually having the courage to take action when it means standing up against others, and that's very hard for a middle school or high school-aged boy to do," he says.
Southern Maine social worker and sex therapist Jennifer Wiessner says parents also need to step up to the plate when it comes to educating kids about sexual health.
"The earlier we can forge that relationship with our children, we can help them learn how to deal with these kinds of situations that come their way, where they may be feeling the peer pressure or insecurity," she says.
Finkelhor says parents should talk to their kids about the difference between a healthy relationships and an exploitive one.