MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Let's say you're 15 or maybe your daughter's 15, going on 16. She loves her cell phone that's got a camera built right into it. All of her friends have phones too and they're all a little sexually awkward or developing or curious. Put all those things together and you get a parental nightmare. Chana Joffe-Walt explains.
CHANA JOFFE-WALT: It was a weekend, just after finals: June, sunny, suburban Seattle. Brooke was with her best friend. There was lots of laughing, lots of cell phones, lots of pictures.
Ms. KATHY NIELSEN: And they were just being silly girls, and they decided they were going to take a shower, and they put the camera phone up to the mirror and took a picture of themselves, a side-profile naked.
JOFFE-WALT: That's Brooke's mom, Kathy Nielsen, who was not in the room, but she's told the story so many times now, she almost seems bored reciting it. Brooke deleted the picture, her friend did not. A copy soon arrived in the cell phone of another student, then the cell phone of a football player, then the football team, then the senior class. And finally, an anonymous envelope with Brooke's naked photo was left inside the mailbox of the Bothell High School vice principal. That's when Ed and Kathy Nielsen got called in.
Mr. ED NIELSEN: And they sat me down at the table and they said, we have pictures of your daughter and another girl naked, do you want to see them. And I said, no I don't want to see that.
Ms. NIELSON: It was terrifying. I mean, having her picture out there. I mean she just turned 16, you know. I was just thinking, oh my goodness, how is she going to handle this, you know, how is this is going to affect the rest of her life.
JOFFE-WALT: Things really got complicated after that. Brooke and her friend were suspended from the cheer squad. And then the Nielsens wanted to know, what about the boys or the school administration who shared the photo with other people. Parents reported it to the police. And then they sued, which is where things are now. Brooke and her parents are giving their deposition next week. Now there is a cute little name for this thing. It's called sexting: Teenagers sending nude or partially nude photos to each other. And Bill Alpert, with the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy - he says one in five teens do it.
Mr. BILL ALPERT (National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy): The primary reason that young people give is that they say this is a fun and flirtatious activity. Of more concern is sort of the second primary reason they cite, and this is among girls, is that they do this as a sort of sexy present for their boyfriends.
JOFFE-WALT: Naked pictures of pubescent girls - it's not exactly a comfortable issue to deal with if you're, say, a high school football coach, or a mom or a middle-aged police detective.
Mr. VERN MYERS (Detective): No, it was actually the first time I've dealt with something like this.
JOFFE-WALT: Detective Vern Myers got the call from Castle Rock Middle School in Colorado and he thought, okay, investigate. So he interviewed dozens of white-faced 12 and 13-year-olds, pimply 14-year-olds with twitchy legs. And he searched for intent: Why did you take the photo? Why did you send it? And he got a lot of, we just thought it'd be funny, or so and so asked me to send it to him.
Detective Myers didn't really know what else to do. There is after all only one obvious legal framework for this sort of thing.
Mr. MYERS: On something like that it's, you know, passing a child pornography. If you take that picture, then you're manufacturing it. If you send that picture, then you're distributing it.
JOFFE-WALT: In at least three states, sexting kids are facing charges of child pornography, sexual exploitation of a minor - many states are grappling with this issue. Attorneys and police - they're just as shocked and confused as parents are to see nude pictures of 14-year-olds. But for now, they're responding in wildly different ways, everything from educational assemblies on the dangers of the Internet to felony charges. For NPR News, I'm Chana Joffe-Walt.