In the early days of cell phones, it was almost unheard of for children to be walking around with the new (and very large) hand-held devices; now, it's common to see middle school-age children tapping away on iPhones and BlackBerrys.

In a similar vein, law enforcement officers said the sending of nude or partially nude photos or sexually explicit messages – “sexting” – has also become common among children and teenagers.

According to a report published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 28 percent of teenagers surveyed said they had sent a naked picture of themselves through text or email, and 31 percent reported having asked someone for a “sext” message. More than 57 percent had been asked to send a sext message.

The study was conducted among 948 students at seven public high schools in southeast Texas.

“I believe it's more common than people realize,” said Capt. Mary Ann Burgess, a spokesperson for the Aiken Department of Public Safety. Burgess said if a cell phone is involved in an investigation, nine times out of 10 it contains images of nude or semi-nude body parts, which could belong to the owner of the phone or could have been sent to the owner.

“We find a disturbing amount of inappropriate pictures on kids' phones nowadays,” she said. “That's what the schools were encountering, those pictures and that graphic language that we might have been called for. Now, it's just, unfortunately, become sort of – I don't want to say normalized, but almost normalized. When you go on Facebook, that's what you see. You see these provocative, almost nude photos of boys and girls. They're both doing it.”

'Not reported as much as it was'

Burgess said two factors strongly influence the prevalence of sexting among teens. The first is parenting – or lack thereof.

She acknowledged that parenting today is not easy.

“If you have reasonable expectations for your child, and you have enforced those reasonable expectations with a lot of love and a lot of discipline, you won't have those issues with your kids,” she said.

Another issue that has allowed sexting to become so commonplace is the amount of sexuality and provocativeness in media, including advertisements and television shows, she said.

“The things that are displayed in normal sitcoms nowadays are nothing like the 'Brady Bunch,'” Burgess said. “All you have to do is open up a magazine, turn on a TV or listen to the lyrics in a song.”

Times have changed, she said, but so have the reactions to sexting.

“It's become so – like I said, I don't want to say 'normalized,' but we're not seeing those prosecutions of production of child porn unless it's an offender clearly violating a child,” she said. “When it gets to those child-on-child situations, they're not as likely to prosecute. They leave it more to the hands of the parents to correct that behavior.”

Burgess said there haven't been any recent cases of sexting in the Aiken area.

“I don't know if parents are not reporting it because it's more – I don't want to say accepted, but they know it's out there,” she said.

“And when they find it, they might just deal with it themselves. It's not reported to us as much as it was in the past when it was more of a newer, up-and-coming issue,” she said.

'You have to be in your kid's business'

Technology has changed. And while it has made sexting more prevalent, it has also enabled parents and law enforcement to combat it.

According to Burgess, monitoring software is available to allow parents to track their children's cell phones, including the location and content; however, it comes at an additional fee. She doesn't see the problem improving until cell service providers make it easier for parents to monitor their children's behavior.

In the meantime, parents can take the first step and talk with their children about the issue.

“Their kids have to have a good understanding of what does my mom or dad expect from me? What do my parents allow? How am I gonna manage these rules?” Burgess said. “If the parents take the first step and have that discussion with the kids and say, 'You might have a friend that will tempt you to do something you know we have not taught you to do. If you feel pressured, you need to come to Mom and Dad.'”

Some parents may have an issue with checking their child's cell phone or violating their privacy.

“In my opinion, as a parent and law enforcement officer, they don't have any right to privacy,” she said. “Not until they're 21 years old, or they've moved out of your house and are not under your control. Your role as a parent is to guide that young life into adulthood so they're a fully functioning, productive member of society. Therefore, you have to know – you have to be in your kid's business.”

Burgess said it's not a violation of trust, but rather good parenting.

“It doesn't always have to be, 'I don't trust you,'” she said. “A parent can say, 'I want to make sure nobody's hurting you.'”

'You can't get it back'

If you or your child discover inappropriate texts or pictures on their phone, Burgess said it's best to call police.

“You never know if we've gotten another complaint on the same person or the same business group or website,” she said. “They don't always have to be afraid, 'Oh my goodness, we're gonna send someone to jail.' Sometimes it's just an education that we can provide for both parties on why it's inappropriate and it can't be allowed.”

Aiken Public Safety has resources available on preventing or responding to the issue, from brochures to discussion with an officer.

“We will more than gladly sit down with them here, one-on-one if we have to, to tell them what their options are,” Burgess said.

For Burgess, the issue is a passion that has been fueled by seeing kids hurt by it.

“Once you press that 'send' button, you can't get it back. You have lost your right to that image,” she said. “It's very hurtful, especially for some of these girls who have sent pictures out. I tell them, 'I'm sorry. I'm sorry it's up there on this website. There's nothing I can do because we can't get all those images back.'”

• Teddy Kulmala covers the crime beat for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since August 2012. He is a native of Williston and majored in communication studies at Clemson University.