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The definition of the word "sext" has yet to appear in the Merriam-Webster dictionary — as a verb at least — but nearly one in five teenagers in a University of Utah-led survey admit to "sexting," or sending sexually explicit photos, typically of themselves, with their cellular phones. Twice that many reported receiving such images.

While sexting has become common among hormonal high school students, few teens showed much appreciation of the risks arising from this behavior made possible by new communication technologies that teens avidly use, according to research published by U. psychologists.

"It has become so easy to do this and kids are largely oblivious to all the kinds of legal and important personal, psychological, interpersonal consequences this can have," lead author Donald Strassberg said. His findings, published last week in Archives of Sexual Behavior, are consistent with what national studies have found in recent years, but they probe much deeper. Based on surveys of nearly all the students available at a single high school, the U. study is the first to tackle the phenomenon with scientific rigor and to quantify teens' attitudes about sexting.

Sexting among teens is criminal under Utah law, defined as "dealing harmful material to a minor." The practice grabbed headlines a few years ago after Farmington high school students were caught with classmates' nude photos on their phones. Another Davis County teen was accused of threatening to distribute nude photos of a classmate unless she granted him sexual favors. That case illustrated the hazard of sharing a photo with someone, who could then broadcast it to rest of the world.

"Once you put it out there, it's out there. You don't have any control over it any more," said Verne Larsen, a safe-schools specialist with the Utah State Office of Education.

And there have been tragic instances where teenage girls took their lives after their photos passed around the phones of classmates. Yet authorities are at a loss for how to deal with this phenomenon, Strassberg said. Sometimes they overreach. For example, Indiana prosecutors charged a 13-year-old girl and 12-year-old boy with possession of child pornography for exchanging nude pictures of themselves.

In 2009, the Utah Legislature amended two "harmful material" statutes so that juveniles could be charged with misdemeanors instead of felonies for sending sexually explicit images via cell phone. Last year, prosecutors filed 118 misdemeanor referrals under the two relevant statutes in Utah's juvenile courts.

These numbers likely include instances of dealing harmful material that don't feature sexting, court administrators caution, because court data do not distinguish between sexts and traditional porn.

Strassberg's team initiated the research by approaching public school districts, but they declined permission to survey students. The researchers ultimately lined up a private school in an Intermountain state.

"Nobody wants me to come in and do this kind of research. This private school thought this sounds important. 'We need to know more about this,'" Strassberg said.

They assembled a 10-minute questionnaire administered to 606 students, asking if they had ever received, sent or forwarded sexually explicit images — strictly defined as photos showing bare genitals, breasts or butts.

The big surprise in the findings was the portion of students who received sext messages, 30 percent of girls and 50 percent of boys. And of those, one in four said they had forwarded such an image. Barely a quarter of the students surveyed described what they thought the legal consequences are. Of those, only 58 percent said they believed the consequences could include criminal charges.

"Even among those who do recognize [the consequences], a third of those send pictures anyway," Strassberg said. "It left me with a real concern that kids out there don't appreciate what the consequences might be and even with those that do, that doesn't seem to be a completely adequate deterrent."

Strassberg believes his results from a single school can generalize U.S. society because his team queried almost the entire student body that was not busy with a test or out sick. And his data line up closely with a yet-to-be-published study based on interviews with 1,200 U. undergraduates concerning their behavior and attitudes regarding sexting when they were in high school.

"These kids at the University of Utah come from throughout the Intermountain West. Every high school in [Utah] is represented," Strassberg said.

His co-authors include U. undergraduates Ryan McKinnon and Michael Sustaita and graduate student Jordan Rullo, now a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Minnesota.

Tribune reporter Brennan Smith contributed to this story.∂ —

'Sexting' among teens

1 in 5 • High school students who admit to sending sexually explicit photos of themselves with a cell phone

30 • Percentage of high school girls who say they've received a "sext"

50 • Percentage of high school boys who say they've received a sext

25 • Percentage of high school students who can describe legal consequences associated with sexting

Source: University of Utah