Sexting dangers prompt N.L. police warning to teens

High school students Sarah Wong and Erin Merlow said they've known of many racy photos circulating among their peers.

Police in Newfoundland and Labrador are warning teenagers about the dangers of circulating lewd cellphone photos of themselves to other pupils, while some young people say so-called sexting is more of a problem than complaints show.

The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary (RNC) said it dealt with 12 cases in St. John's in the 2011-2012 school year. Police said they've already encountered two complaints, just two months into this school term.

But students from a local school say it's happening more frequently than that.

"There's lots of pictures that circulated with lots of different girls in junior high that were really racy," said Erin Merlow, 15.

"I knew like a lot of people that had pictures that were going around," said Sarah Wong, also 15.

Often, girls will take revealing photos with their cellphone and send them to boys – making them promise not to share it around.

However, several students told CBC News that the racy pictures eventually always get out and are passed around, phone to phone, which can tarnish reputations.

"There was a circle that I knew about and there was a few guys in the circle. And if one got the picture, they'd send it to the other guys in the circle," Merlow said.

Another student, Patrick Stokes, 15, explained that he knew of guys who sent photos to other male students in exchange for cash.

Const. Lisa Harris, a member of the RNC's street patrol, said the pictures vary in content.

"Lewd photos, nude photos, couples engaging in sexual acts," she said. "Oftentimes, we get involved because there has been harassing, because people are taking the pictures and they're posting it on school walls or they're posting it on these message boards."

While the complaints come from parents, teachers, principals or guidance counsellors, the adults are often the last to know.

Const. Terry Follett, who works with the RNC's Child Exploitation Unit, investigates complaints and websites where children could be at risk. He said the photos can spread quickly.

"We had a file... We got a call about 1 p.m., just at the end of the school year last year. And by the time I ended up at the school where the complaint originated, there [were] other schools calling about what [had] gone on," he said.

Harris said teens need to be aware of the possible consequences of taking and sharing these photos.

"A lot of times, it's that they trust the individual that they're sending it to, and they don't understand that six months down the road, or a year down the road – or even a week down the road – that that relationship may not be the same, and that trust may no longer be there," she said.

Police warn that once a nude picture or video is sent to someone else, it can live on in various ways. In recent child porn cases, Follett said, the RNC has caught suspects sharing the same pictures that circulated in the local schools.

"It ended up on the internet somewhere, and just some search warrants that we've done on some residents, these pictures would end up on these offenders' computers," he said.

While there can be legal consequences for teenagers who possess or transmit explicit images of other teens, Follett said the victim has to file a legal complaint – something that doesn't often happen.

"To bring them into the court setting, to have to tell their story about how it got to the point where they took that picture... Sometimes, it's embarrassing for them. They don't want to go forward with it. They just want to move on with their lives," he said.

Harris said it's a difficult situation for any teenager.

"I am young enough so that I understand what a lot of these youths are going through. I mean, to be a teenager is hard enough, but to have bullying because of something that you thought was a personal or an intimate message that you sent to somebody – it's hard to see young girls or young guys have to go through this," she said.

For some teens, it became too much to handle.

Rehtaeh Parsons, 17, from Nova Scotia, attempted suicide and later died in April, following years of bullying when pictures of her being sexually assaulted at a party had circulated throughout her school. Audrie Pott, 15, under similar circumstances.

In 2009, 13-year-old Florida resident Hope Witsell took her own life when a topless photo that she had sent to a boy had been used to taunt her on social media.

The RNC wants to prevent such tragedies in St. John's.

Harris said it starts with the parents.

"When we see kids who have had issues arise from sexting, a lot of times, it's festered and it escalates before an adult finds out," she said.

"So have that conversation with your child. Let them know they can always go to somebody if they're in over their head."