SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah's attorney general says teen "sexting" is a growing problem statewide as prosecutors are reporting a greater number of cases.
4% of cell-owning teens ages 12-17 say they have sent sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images of themselves to someone else via text messaging.-Pew Internet
"It is a growing practice - all levels of sexting, whether it's actually sending a photograph, pornographic texts - it's becoming a major, major issue," Mark Shurtleff said Monday.
Prosecutors in Davis County say they're seeing at least one new case involving teens per week.
"It's a perfect storm of physical maturation, lack of mental maturation and technology," Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings explained to KSL Newsradio.
While he concedes the problem is big, Rawlings questions whether it is actually growing.
"We don't believe that the incidence is increasing," Rawlings said. "What we are seeing is an increase in reporting."
Rawlings says reporting has improved significantly with changes made to laws in 2009. Now, first-time offenders under the age of 17 can be charged with misdemeanors instead of felonies.
15% of cell-owning teens ages 12-17 say they have received sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images of someone they know via text messaging on their cell phone. -Pew Internet
Rawlings says parents are more inclined to inform on teens when the penalties aren't as severe.
"The philosophy of my office with these first-time offenders is that the best way it can be handled is with as little intervention as possible," Rawlings said.
He says most cases in Davis County are handled through non-judicial adjudication, where misdemeanors are resolved out of court -- usually between parents, teens and probation officers.
Despite the lessened penalties for younger first-timers, Shurtleff is emphasizing that teen sexting equals child pornography.
One in six teens with a cell phone has received a sexually suggestive image or video of someone they know. -Pew Internet
"It's a very serious thing," Shurtleff said. "Just because we changed it from a felony to a misdemeanor when a minor is involved doesn't mean there is anything less serious - it has lasting consequences."
Shurtleff is encouraging parents to have shared cell phone plans with their kids and request that their service providers forward their teens' messages, texts, and mailed pictures to them. He says many providers now offer that service.
An Associated Press/MTV study conducted late last year found 30 percent of people between the ages of 14 and 24 had sent or received nude photos on their cell phones or online.