“I didn’t know it was against the law,” Isaiah said.
That is because culturally, such a fine distinction eludes most teenagers. Their world is steeped in highly sexualized messages. Extreme pornography is easily available on the Internet. Hit songs and music videos promote stripping and sexting.
“Take a dirty picture for me,” urge the pop stars Taio Cruz and Kesha in their recent duet, “Dirty Picture.” “Send the dirty picture to me. Snap.”
In a 2010 Super Bowl advertisement for Motorola, the actress Megan Fox takes a cellphone picture of herself in a bubble bath. “I wonder what would happen if I were to send this out?” she muses. The commercial continues with goggle-eyed men gaping at the forwarded photo — normalizing and encouraging such messages.
“You can’t expect teenagers not to do something they see happening all around them,” said Susannah Stern, an associate professor at the University of San Diego who writes about adolescence and technology.
“They’re practicing to be a part of adult culture,” Dr. Stern said. “And in 2011, that is a culture of sexualization and of putting yourself out there to validate who you are and that you matter.”
The prevalence of under-age sexting is unclear and can often depend on the culture of a particular school or circle of students. An Internet poll conducted for The Associated Press and MTV by Knowledge Networks in September 2009 indicated that 24 percent of 14- to 17-year-olds had been involved in “some type of naked sexting,” either by cellphone or on the Internet. A December 2009 telephone poll from the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project found that 5 percent of 14- to 17-year-olds had sent naked or nearly naked photos or video by cellphone, and that 18 percent had received them. Boys and girls send photos in roughly the same proportion, the Pew survey found.
But a double standard holds. While a boy caught sending a picture of himself may be regarded as a fool or even a boastful stud, girls, regardless of their bravado, are castigated as sluts.
Photos of girls tend to go viral more often, because boys and girls will circulate girls’ photos in part to shame them, explained Danah Boyd, a senior social media researcher at Microsoft and a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
In contrast, when a boy sends a revealing photo of himself to a girl, Dr. Boyd noted, she usually does not circulate it. And, Dr. Boyd added, boys do not tend to circulate photos of other boys: “A straight-identified boy will never admit to having naked photos of a boy on his phone.”
Policy makers are beginning to recognize that a uniform response to these cases does not fit.
“I hate the word ‘sexting,’ ” said Andrew J. Harris, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell, who is leading a study of the practice among adolescents to help develop policies to address it. “We’re talking about a lot of different behaviors and a lot of different motivations.”
There is the high-tech flirt. The troubled attention-seeker. A couple’s consensual exchanges. Drunken teenagers horsing around. Pressure from a boyfriend. Malicious distribution. A teenager who barrages another with unsolicited lewd photos or texts. Or, as in a 2009 Wisconsin case of “sextortion,” a boy, pretending to be a girl online, who solicited explicit pictures of boys, which he then used as blackmail to compel those boys to have sex with him.
The content of the photos can vary widely too, from suggestive to sadistic.