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Sexting is a provocative word for a relatively new activity that teens do and get in trouble for. They send sexually suggestive or nude photos over a cell phone. A new study by the Pew Research Center finds nearly one in six teens has received these pictures.

NPR's Laura Sydell reports that educators and lawmakers are struggling with how to deal with sexting.

LAURA SYDELL: The study showed that only four percent of teens between 12 and 17 actually send suggestive photos. Fifteen percent say they have seen sexy photos on phones.

Ms. AMANDA LENHART (Senior Research Specialist, Pew Internet & American Life Project): That doesn't actually even take into account teens who see it over somebody's shoulder, who hear about it in the hallways of the school.

SYDELL: Study author Amanda Lenhart.

Ms. LENHART: Teens told us that this is something they have quite a bit of experience with. This is part of their daily lives.

SYDELL: Schools and communities are struggling to stop sexting. Law enforcement has been stepping in. Lenhart worries they've been overreacting. She points to the case of Phillip Alpert. When he was 18-years-old he had a fight with his 16-year-old girlfriend one night. In a fit of rage, he forwarded a naked photo of her to their friends and family. Alpert was prosecuted and found guilty of sending out child pornography. At 19, he's now a registered sex offender.

Ms. LENHART: It doesn't make sense that somebody who's done what he has done would actually be listed on a public listing along with rapists and other people who harm people and children in ways that are so much greater.

SYDELL: In another case, a group of 13-year-old girls took pictures of themselves at a slumber party dressed only in bras and towels. The photos made their way to the local district attorney. He threatened them with prosecution. And now the ACLU is suing the DA for violating the girls' First Amendment rights. ACLU attorney Vic Walczak.

Ms. VIC WALCZAK (Attorney, ACLU): What kids are doing today is no different than what they were doing 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago. What's different is the technology has changed and it's now more visible.

SYDELL: The parents won their case in federal district court, but prosecutor George Skumanick is appealing. NPR could not reach Mr. Skumanick. A few state legislatures are trying to make more appropriate laws. Vermont and Utah downgraded the penalties for minors and first-time perpetrators of sexting. But the real battle may be trying to get teens to think before they act.

As DA Skumanick pointed out in an earlier interview, sexting can be dangerous. Two girls killed themselves after naked pictures leaked out at their schools and they were taunted by peers. Recently, LG electronics started a YouTube campaign with James Lipton, the host of "Inside the Actors Studio." Lipton stands by a teenage boy who's about to send out an erotic phone picture of himself to his girlfriend Zoey.

Mr. JAMES LIPTON (Host, Inside the Actors Studio): Zoey is a Twitter addict and the last thing he needs is tweets about his feats. Before you text, give it a ponder.

SYDELL: Getting teens to think before they act is a fight that's gone on for generations. Unfortunately, in this digital age, it may be taking on a new urgency.

Laura Sydell, NPR news.

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