WISCASSET, Maine — Lincoln County officials say cases of local teenagers sharing nude photographs, a form of “sexting,” are on the rise, and teens and their parents are often unaware of the criminal and potentially life-altering consequences that can come with the practice.
Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Michael Murphy and Detective Sgt. Ronald Rollins spoke with The Lincoln County News as a first step in reaching out to the public about the growing sexting issue.
According to Murphy, the rate of these cases has grown over the past few years, with the sheriff’s office handling as many as half a dozen to 10 cases during a school year.
“To us that’s quite a blow-up. That’s bad. It’s a growing trend and I don’t know why,” Murphy said.
Murphy and Rollins emphasized the criminal charges that can stem from such pictures if they meet the state statute for possession or dissemination of sexually explicit material; something the kids and their parents often do not realize can apply.
“The law doesn’t discriminate who it is. If you’re underage, pictures of yourself that meet [statutory] criteria would be child pornography,” Murphy said.
The applicability of the statute and severity of the crime varies based on criteria such as the age of the person(s) and the conduct depicted, among other factors. The specifics are outlined in the Maine Criminal Code, Title 17-A, sections 283 (dissemination) and 284 (possession).
Much of the criminal sexting is among high school-aged students, but also from those as young as sixth-graders, Rollins said.
The actors are not tied to any niche, Murphy said, and come from different economic levels, social levels and groups.
“Some of the kids we’ve dealt with, they’ve never been in trouble before, and all of a sudden they’re doing this,” he said. “Some of it’s peer pressure, and some it’s wanting to be accepted, [because] they think this is the way.”
Girls often will send photos to boys, and boys return the favor, Rollins said.
But boys are more likely than girls to share the photographs with others, according to Murphy.
“Guys brag more, and girls are more private about things,” Murphy said. “Every time they [share the photos], they’re committing a crime. They’re not thinking about it, but they are.”
A report of one photograph being shared usually leads to a case involving four to five kids, Rollins said, but sometimes it can involve many more.
Rollins recounted a case from just a couple of weeks ago when a mother called the sheriff’s office after discovering her child had received a nude picture on their phone.
What began with a 15-year-old local girl sending a picture to her boyfriend ended up turning into a case involving 30 juveniles, some as far away as Oregon, and a big project for the sheriff’s office, Rollins said.
Federal law enforcement could even step in on the case since the photographs were transmitted over state lines, taking discretion on at least some criminal charges out of local officials’ hands, Murphy said.
Rollins did end up charging the local girl with dissemination of sexually explicit material, but not before conferring with the district attorney’s office about the case, he said.
‘Once it’s out there, it’s out there’
Lindsay Dean, the juvenile prosecutor for Lincoln County and others, said she generally moves forward with charges if law enforcement brings her information that meets the statute for dissemination or possession of sexually explicit material.
“If it doesn’t meet that, then we can’t go forward on anything,” Dean said.
If it does meet the statute, Dean said she evaluates whether to take the case to court by filing a petition or pursuing an “informal adjustment” through a juvenile community corrections officer.
Part of the decision is based on the seriousness of the crime and whether or not the individual has a criminal history or prior involvement with the juvenile system, she said.
An informal adjustment could include requirements for the juvenile to undergo an evaluation, or complete counseling or service work. If it does not go well, the informal adjustment could be revoked and the case could be taken to court, Dean said.
Potential outcomes from a case going to court include fines, sentences at one of the state’s youth centers, or ending up on formal probation until age 21, Murphy said.
Dean did not give an estimate as to how often she sees cases related to this issue in Lincoln County, but confirmed she too has seen more of them over the last year or two.
Echoing Murphy’s and Rollins’ concerns about the criminal consequences of sharing nude photographs, Dean said teens also need to be aware of what may be the longer-term consequences of having their compromising photos floating around.
“Who knows,” Dean said, “maybe one of them will want to run for president one day.”
Murphy said much of the child pornography law enforcement comes across has been circulating around the U.S. and the world for years.
“They’re not thinking it through,” he said. “Once the picture’s out there, it’s out there. There’s no take-backs.”
“You send it to a then-boyfriend or girlfriend; what happens in a year when you’re not boyfriend and girlfriend anymore and you don’t get along that well?” Murphy asked.
Criminal sexting can also lead to consequences at school if a kid uses a school tablet or computer, and possibly consequences for the kid’s family, Murphy said.
Law enforcement seizes phones and computers related to these cases, and because there is only one computer lab in the state that processes them, those devices can be gone for months at a time — if they get returned at all, Murphy said.
Law enforcement cannot return a device that has had child pornography on it, even if it has been wiped, Murphy said.
“At least the hard drive is gone, so it’s an expense to the family and an inconvenience to the family, especially if you have several people using it,” he said.
To help prevent the crimes from happening in the first place, Murphy urged parents to pay attention to their kids, talk to them about what they are doing on their phones and on social media, and keep an eye on their kids’ Facebook, email and texts.
“You don’t have to read everything, just see if anything alarms [you] and set [the phone] back down,” he said.
Parents should also discuss the pressures and consequences related to sexting with their children before a crime is committed, Murphy said.
Rollins recommended parents follow the same rules that were recommended when the family computer was generally the only Internet-capable device in the home.
“Keep [phones, tablets] out in the living room where the family is. You’re not taking nude photos of yourself at that point,” Rollins said.
Because of the potential criminal consequences, Murphy hopes parents will be more likely to call law enforcement when an issue comes to their attention.
“Just because they call doesn’t mean we’re going to go grab junior and go lock him up. That’s not our plan,” he said.
Murphy plans to discuss the issue with Lt. Rand Maker, head of Lincoln County Sheriff’s patrol division, and Deputy First Class Mark Bridgham, the school resource officer for Lincoln Academy, to see what sort of education programs related to sexting might be brought to the county’s schools.
For more information, Murphy recommends calling the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office at 882-6576 or visiting the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s website, missingkids.com. The center’s NetSmartz Workshop program has tips, discussion starters and other resources at netsmartz.org/Sexting.