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9 Investigates: Growing trend of sexting among teenagers

Story highlights:

  • Police, prosecutors dealing with gap in N.C. law when it comes to sexting
  • There is no law specifying penalty for teen who shares nude photos online
  • Some think harsher punishment is needed when nude images end up on the Internet

In Mecklenburg County, the dangers of sexting hit hard when in February word spread that the nude pictures of 65 middle and high school girls had ended up on the Internet.
They were provocative photos, taken by the girls themselves and shared with friends – a practice school police investigators say is escalating to a more serious level.

"It's going beyond just, 'Girl sends picture to boy, boy then shares pictures with other boys.' It's now becoming, 'Girl shares pictures with boy and now pictures are ending up on various social networking sites,'" said Kenny Lynch, a detective with Charlotte Mecklenburg School Police.
Those pictures ended up on Dropbox, an online file sharing site. It was set up by a middle school boy who is now facing felony charges of disseminating obscenity and second-degree child exploitation. A conviction could require him to register as a sex offender even though he's only 13 years old, which is raising eyebrows.

"Do you want to criminalize minors for this type of activity?" Lynch asks.
The episode reveals a surprising gap in North Carolina law. Police and prosecutors dealing with sexting cases have a limited number of legal options to consider.
There is no law on the books that lays out a specific penalty for a teen who shares nude photos of other teens, or makes them more widely available on the Internet. The only laws that do exist focus almost entirely on adults in child pornography cases.

Every one of them is at least 30 years old and was written long before cellphones with cameras even existed, and yet Assistant District Attorney Kelly Stetzer says studies show up to 28 percent of teens are now taking nude selfies and sharing them with others.
According to N.C. law, that's a crime.

"I think the challenge is for the law to catch up with the way in which children are using technology," Stetzer says.
Lynch says deciding on charges in sexting cases is like putting a square peg into a round hole.

"It's one of those situations no one envisioned (when laws were written)," he says.

Lynch explains the situation becomes more complicated because while current laws make taking pictures of nude juveniles a crime, sexting often involves "selfies" where the victim and the perpetrator are technically the same person.

He also says while he believes educating teens is appropriate in many sexting cases, harsher punishment may be needed for cases where pictures end up on the Internet where predators can easily access them -- and some state leaders say it's an issue that needs to be addressed.
"It's a problem," says N.C. Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Republican from Huntersville. Tarte says he had no idea there is currently no mention of sexting in current state laws and adds that he'll push for the state to change that by giving police and prosecutors better tools for dealing with the realities of teen sexting.

He told Channel 9, "(The laws) are too ambiguous right now. We need to determine whether this was a purposeful or malicious intent or was it just a prank? They have very different consequences depending on what side of the line you fall on."
Tarte, who co-chairs a new Internet Technology committee in the Senate, says he'll push the legislature to study the idea of creating new laws focused on sexting.
Those investigating the teens involved in those cases, like Lynch, say it will take a delicate balance to find laws that truly fit the crime.
"I do think there are some instances that we need to be looking at some criminal charges to hold them accountable, but it's got to be tailored to be age-appropriate," he says.

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