It was late on a school night, so Jennifer’s kids were already asleep when she got a phone call from a friend of her 15-year-old daughter, Jasmine. “Jasmine is on a Web page and she’s naked.” Jennifer woke Jasmine, and throughout the night, the two of them kept getting texts from Jasmine’s friends with screenshots of the Instagram account. It looked like a porn site—shot after shot of naked girls—only these were real teens, not grown women in pigtails. Jennifer recognized some of them from Jasmine’s high school. And there, in the first row, was her daughter, “just standing there, with her arms down by her sides,” Jennifer told me. “There were all these girls with their butts cocked, making pouty lips, pushing their boobs up, doing porny shots, and you’re thinking, Where did they pick this up? And then there was Jasmine in a fuzzy picture looking awkward.” (The names of all the kids and parents in this story have been changed to protect their privacy.) You couldn’t easily identify her, because the picture was pretty dark, but the connection had been made anyway. “OMG no f‑ing way that’s Jasmine,” someone had commented under her picture. “Down lo ho,” someone else answered, meaning one who flies under the radar, because Jasmine was a straight‑A student who played sports and worked and volunteered and was generally a “goody-goody two shoes,” her mom said. She had long, silky hair and doe eyes and a sweet face that seemed destined for a Girl Scouts pamphlet, not an Instagram account where girls were called out as hos or thots (thot stands for “that ho over there”).

That night, in March of this year, Jennifer tried to report the account to Instagram’s privacy-and-safety center, hoping it would get taken down. She asked several friends to fill out the “report violations” page too, but after a few hours, the account was still up. (Instagram’s help center recommends contacting local authorities in cases of serious abuse.) She considered calling 911, but this didn’t seem like that kind of emergency. So she waited until first thing the next morning and called a local deputy sheriff who serves as the school resource officer, and he passed the message on to his superior, Major Donald Lowe. Over the years, Lowe had gotten calls from irate parents whose daughters’ naked pictures had popped up on cellphones, usually sent around by an angry boyfriend after a breakup. But he immediately realized that this was a problem of a different order. Investigation into the Instagram account quickly revealed two other, similar accounts with slightly different names. Between them, the accounts included about 100 pictures, many of girls from the local high school, Louisa County High, in central Virginia. Some shots he later described to me as merely “inappropriate,” meaning girls “scantily clad in a bra and panties, maybe in a suggestive pose.” But some “really got us”—high-school girls masturbating, and then one picture showing a girl having sex with three boys at once.

Lowe has lived in Louisa County, or pretty close to it, for most of his life. The county is spread out and rural, but it is by no means small-town innocent. People there deal drugs and get caught up with gangs, and plenty of high-school girls end up pregnant. Usually Lowe can more or less classify types in his head—which kids from which families might end up in trouble after a drunken fight in the McDonald’s parking lot. But this time the cast of characters was baffling. He knew many of the girls in the photos, knew their parents. A few were 14, from the local middle school. They came from “all across the board,” Lowe says. “Every race, religion, social, and financial status in the town. Rich, poor, everyone. That’s what was most glaring and blaring about the situation. If she was a teenager with a phone, she was on there.” He knew some of the boys who had followed the Instagram accounts, too. Among them were kids with a lot to lose, including star athletes with scholarships to first-rate colleges.

It seemed to Lowe, in those early days, as if something had gone seriously wrong under his nose, and that’s how the media reported it: “Deputies Bust Massive Teen Sexting Ring in Louisa County,” one headline said. The word ring stuck out, as if an organized criminal gang had been pimping out girls at the school. The Instagram accounts were quickly taken down, and Louisa County High School was transformed into a crime scene, which it remained for the next month. Police cars sat parked at the school’s entrance, and inside, a few deputies who reported to Lowe began interviewing kids—starting with girls they recognized in the pictures and boys who had followed the accounts. Jasmine, who was a sophomore, was one of the first to be called in. She told them she’d originally sent the picture to a boy in 11th grade she’d known for a couple of years and really liked. They asked her whether she knew of anyone else at school who had nude pictures on their phone, and she told them she did. For the most part, the kids were “more than cooperative,” Lowe says. One person would give up 10 names. The next would give up five, and so on.

But pretty soon this got to be a problem. Within an hour, the deputies realized just how common the sharing of nude pictures was at the school. “The boys kept telling us, ‘It’s nothing unusual. It happens all the time,’ ” Lowe recalls. Every time someone they were interviewing mentioned another kid who might have naked pictures on his or her phone, they had to call that kid in for an interview. After just a couple of days, the deputies had filled multiple evidence bins with phones, and they couldn’t see an end to it. Fears of a cabal got replaced by a more mundane concern: what to do with “hundreds of damned phones. I told the deputies, ‘We got to draw the line somewhere or we’re going to end up talking to every teenager in the damned county!’ ” Nor did the problem stop at the county’s borders. Several boys, in an effort to convince Lowe that they hadn’t been doing anything rare or deviant, showed him that he could type the hashtag symbol (#) into Instagram followed by the name of pretty much any nearby county and then thots, and find a similar account.

Most of the girls on Instagram fell into the same category as Jasmine. They had sent a picture to their boyfriend, or to someone they wanted to be their boyfriend, and then he had sent it on to others. For the most part, they were embarrassed but not devastated, Lowe said. They felt betrayed, but few seemed all that surprised that their photos had been passed around. What seemed to mortify them most was having to talk about what they’d done with a “police officer outside their age group.” In some he sensed low self-esteem—for example, the girl who’d sent her naked picture to a boy, unsolicited: “It just showed up! I guess she was hot after him?” A handful of senior girls became indignant during the course of the interview. “This is my life and my body and I can do whatever I want with it,” or, “I don’t see any problem with it. I’m proud of my body,” Lowe remembers them saying. A few, as far as he could tell, had taken pictures especially for the Instagram accounts and had actively tried to get them posted. In the first couple of weeks of the investigation, Lowe’s characterization of the girls on Instagram morphed from “victims” to “I guess I’ll call them victims” to “they just fell into this category where they victimized themselves.”

Louisa County’s chief deputy sheriff, Donald Lowe,
had never seen a sexting case on this scale.

Lowe’s team explained to both the kids pictured on Instagram and the ones with photos on their phones the serious legal consequences of their actions. Possessing or sending a nude photo of a minor—even if it’s a photo of yourself—can be prosecuted as a felony under state child-porn laws. He explained that 10 years down the road they might be looking for a job or trying to join the military, or sitting with their families at church, and the pictures could wash back up; someone who had the pictures might even try to blackmail them. And yet the kids seemed strikingly blasé. “They’re just sitting there thinking, Wah, wah, wah,” Lowe said, turning his hands into flapping lips. “It’s not sinking in. Remember at that age, you think you’re invincible, and you’re going to do whatever the hell you want to do? We just couldn’t get them past that.”

After a week’s immersive education on the subject, Donald Lowe found himself just where the rest of the nation’s law-enforcement community—and much of the nation—is on the subject of teen sexting: totally confused. Were the girls being exploited? Or were they just experimenting? Was sexting harming the kids? And if so, why didn’t they seem to care? An older man with whom Lowe was acquainted stopped him at the grocery store to tell him, “That’s child porn, and you ought to lock those people up for a long time.” But Lowe didn’t want to charge kids “just for being stupid,” he told me later. “We don’t want to label them as child molesters.”

As soon as teenagers got cameraphones, they began using them to send nude selfies to one another, without thinking or caring that a naked picture of a minor, unleashed into the world, can set off explosions. And while adults send naked pictures too, of course, the speed with which teens have incorporated the practice into their mating rituals has taken society by surprise. I’d heard about the Louisa County sexting scandal in the news. It seemed like a good case study—the place is traditional but not isolated; it has annual beauty queens and football pageantry on a Friday Night Lights scale, and also many residents who work in Richmond, the state capital. I spent several weeks in and around the county this spring and summer talking to kids, parents, police officers, and lawmakers, trying to understand how officials sort through such a mess of a case. Maybe more important, I wanted to understand how teens themselves think about sexting—why they send naked pictures and what they hope to get in return; how much or how little sexting has to do with actual sex. My hope was to help figure out how parents and communities should respond. Because so often in sexting cases that go public, we adults inadvertently step into the role of Freddy Krueger, making teenage nightmares come true: We focus on all the wrong things; we overreact. Sometimes we create an even bigger disaster.

A school resource officer talks to students at Louisa County High School about the recent sexting scandal—and the swirl of rumors that it generated.

When I asked the kids from Louisa County High School, which has about 1,450 students, how many people they knew who had sexted, a lot of them answered “everyone.” (Throughout this article, I will use sexting to mean the transmission of provocative selfies you wouldn’t want your mother to see—not words, but pictures.) A few of the 30 or so kids I talked with said 80 percent or 60 percent, and no one said fewer than half. Kids, however, are known to exaggerate. Surveys on sexting have found pretty consistently that among kids in their upper teens, about a third have sexted, making the practice neither “universal” nor “vanishingly rare,” as Elizabeth Englander, a psychology professor at Bridgewater State University, writes, but common enough in a teenager’s life to be familiar. A recent study of seven public high schools in East Texas, for example, found that 28 percent of sophomores and juniors had sent a naked picture of themselves by text or e-mail, and 31 percent had asked someone to send one.

The general public was first forced to contemplate teen sexting in 2009, when a scandal in rural Pennsylvania’s Tunkhannock Area High School, similar to the school in Louisa County, made national news. By that point, the great majority of teens had cellphones—71 percent, almost the same percentage as adults. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and CosmoGirl.com had just conducted the first public survey on sexting among teens and young adults, showing that, much to parents’ chagrin, the practice was fairly common. In the Pennsylvania case, the local district attorney threatened to bring child-pornography charges against girls who showed up in the pictures, which was widely considered overkill. It “makes as much sense as charging a kid who brings a squirt gun to school with possession of an unlicensed firearm,” wrote a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Lawmakers around the country began searching for a better alternative.

“I really don’t like the word sexting,” says Michael Harmony, the commander of the southern-Virginia branch of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, which covers Louisa County. The term he makes his investigators use is self-production, which is law-enforcement-speak for when minors produce pictures of themselves that qualify as child porn. But changing the term doesn’t clarify much. Whether you call it self-production or sexting, it comes in too many forms to pin down. Harmony has dealt with a 13-year-old who posted her naked picture on MeetMe.com and had grown men show up at her house. He’s investigated a 17-year-old boy who blackmailed a girl into sending him naked pictures, and another boy who threatened to send out the naked pictures a girl had given him if she didn’t have sex with him. Lately, though, Harmony’s office has been flooded with cases like the one in Louisa County, generating bins filled with cellphones that his investigators have to go through one by one.

Since 2009, state legislatures have tried to help guide law enforcement by passing laws specifically addressing sexting. At least 20 states have passed such laws, most of which establish a series of relatively light penalties. In Florida, for example, a minor who is guilty of transmitting or distributing a nude photograph or video must pay a fine, complete community service, or attend a class on sexting. A second offense is a misdemeanor and a third is a felony. Where they’ve been passed, the new laws have helpfully taken ordinary teen sexting out of the realm of child pornography and provided prosecutors with a gentler alternative. But they have also created deeper cultural confusion, by codifying into law the idea that any kind of sexting between minors is a crime. For the most part, the laws do not concern themselves with whether a sext was voluntarily shared between two people who had been dating for a year or was sent under pressure: a sext is a sext. So as it stands now, in most states it is perfectly legal for two 16-year-olds to have sex. But if they take pictures, it’s a matter for the police.

Five years after the sexting scandal in Pennsylvania, cases still arise that betray shockingly little clarity about who should count as the perpetrator and who the victim. In another Pennsylvania case this year, two popular girls persuaded an autistic boy to share a picture of his penis with them, then forwarded the picture to a wide circle of schoolmates. The district attorney decided to go after the boy, according to Witold Walczak, the legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, which intervened in the case. A recent study published in Pediatrics broke down how police departments handle “youth-produced sexual images.” About two-thirds of the cases that have received police attention involved “aggravating circumstances,” meaning an adult was involved, or one teen had blackmailed or sexually abused another, or had “recklessly circulated” the image without the person’s consent. The remaining third were what the authors, who are associated with the Crimes Against Children Research Center, defined as having “no malicious elements”; those “may best be viewed as adolescent sexual experimentation.” Nonetheless, in 18 percent of those cases, police departments reported making an arrest.

Virginia is not one of the states that has passed specific teen-sexting laws, and so Major Lowe was looking, potentially, at hundreds of felonies. Every boy who had a photo on his phone, every girl who’d snapped one of herself—all could be prosecuted as felons and sex offenders. If Lowe made an arrest, the case would land with Rusty McGuire, the main prosecutor for Louisa County. McGuire wouldn’t talk with me about this situation specifically, but he expressed his concern more generally about nude pictures of minors landing in the wrong hands: “What do you do? Turn a blind eye? You’re letting teenagers incite the prurient interest of predators around the country,” fueling a demand that “can only be met by the actual abuse of real children.”

McGuire has successfully prosecuted several actual pedophiles over the years, including a local man who had posed as a teenage girl on Facebook and solicited young boys for sex, and another man—a trusted teacher—who had been part of a ring whose members offered up their own children to other members for sex. When he talks about the awful details of these crimes, it’s hard to get them out of your head. The Virginia legislature has long failed to pass a sexting law largely for fear of being soft on child porn, says Dave Albo, the chairman of the state Courts of Justice committee. Still, the absence of any obvious lesser alternative put Lowe in a difficult spot. “They’re not violent criminals,” he told me. “If these kids just made a dumb-ass mistake, we don’t want to ruin their future.”

Junior-varsity football players check their phones before a game.

“She’s a whore. I’ve totally heard that she’s a whore.”

That comment came quickly, from a senior girl whose style was generally more refined. “She” was Briana, a sophomore softball player who, in school lore, was the one who’d started all the trouble.

“I have to show you something.” Briana’s friend had stopped her between classes one day and showed her a picture on Instagram, the same morning Jennifer, Jasmine’s mom, contacted the police. It was a picture of a pair of breasts, and Briana, who is now a junior, recognized them as her own. Pretty much anyone at the high school would have. She was the only girl who had so many freckles going down her shoulders and arms, and it didn’t take too much imagination to guess where else. Briana went to a young teacher she trusted. “I said, ‘There’s this picture of me up on Instagram.’ ” The teacher informed the principal, who eventually called the police. No one at school knew that Jennifer had already reported the account that morning.

While police were calling kids into a makeshift interview room at the high school, one by one, a more unruly drama was unfolding in the hallways. Because the Instagram accounts had been up for only a short time, not everyone had seen them. Rumors spread about which girls had appeared in photos and what they’d been doing. One was supposedly making out with her sister (not true). Another was “messing with, like 10, 15 dudes” (also not true). A group of sociologists led by Elizabeth Armstrong has studied the class dynamics of the term slut as used by young college women. High-status women from affluent homes associate slut with women they call “trashy” and not “classy.” To women from working-class families, upper-class women are “rich bitches in sororities”—whom they also commonly think of as sluts. The girl who called Briana a whore is a potential future sorority-chapter president. She and several other more affluent students described everyone associated with the Instagram accounts to me as “ghetto,” which in this context had mild racial connotations but generally stands for “trashy” or “the lower crowd.” The role of ultimate, quintessential slut fell to a “redneck” girl who appeared on Instagram. In the post-sexting-scandal lore, she “supposedly slept with her brother” (surely not true).

To the elite girls, the girls on Instagram were sluts not necessarily because they were sleeping around but because of what they looked like or how they acted. “Let’s just say people have different body types,” one girl told me. Others, speaking about girls in the photos, said, “You obviously have a little too much confidence,” or just “Butter face” (as in: nice body, but her face … ). In their college study, Armstrong and her team identify this brand of sniping as a way girls police one another and establish a sort of moral superiority without denying themselves actual sex, and something similar seemed to be happening here. Well-off, popular girls were most certainly in the Instagram photos, but none would admit as much unless I knew otherwise. Briana was, in many ways, on the opposite end of the spectrum—she lacked that kind of standing, and, because she had gone to the principal, she was the girl most widely associated with the accounts, and therefore the main character in the morality tale that was being stitched together between classes.

I met Briana in early June, just after school had ended. She was in a summer program for geometry remediation because she’d gotten a C in math. She told me that she had ADD and took Adderall, and that she loved history but hated math with a passion. “I don’t know. I try hard. I’m just more into sports.” On the day we met, she wore a purple tank top and not-too-tight shorts, and her long hair was down. She had a sunburn on her shoulders that was bothering her a little. She told me she ran track and played volleyball and softball. Mostly she seemed nervous and eager to please—“No, ma’am.” “Yes, ma’am”—and to make me understand that she was not a bare-your-breasts kind of girl.

“Just let me see them, please?” She texted back, “No,” she told me. He was a junior, one year ahead of her. She didn’t consider him her boyfriend, just someone she talked with at school sometimes. Plus she felt “self-conscious.” Briana is tall and fit but doesn’t exude that sexy sheen some high-school girls do. He asked a dozen more times, in different ways, and one night the text came as she was getting out of the shower. “What are you doing?” he texted. “I just got out of the shower and I’m about to go to sleep.” “Send me a picture, PLEASE.” She caved. She sent it over Snapchat and said he had to let it erase right away. He said he did.

Cellphones confiscated at the high school filled
multiple evidence bins.

For days after the investigation began, Briana felt that people were staring at her, talking about her, blaming her for the fact that the high school seemed like a prison, or that they were being hauled into a police interview, or—worst of all—that they had to hide their phones or have them confiscated for God knows how long. “It was getting 10 times bigger,” she told me. “As each day went by, more phones were being taken. It all went really, really fast—way faster than I expected.” Sometimes her friends would tell her, “Hey, they were talking about you in second period.”

Briana was prepared for part of the reaction: that everyone would think “if I show my boobs then that means I would do anything.” But the worst part was “everyone calling me a snitch. Everybody, like, hated me because they knew I had told. It was so bad that I didn’t want to go to school.”

Briana and Jasmine are friends, and the day after the police arrived, Jasmine also wanted to stay home from school. She had sobbed and thrown up when she saw her photo on Instagram. But Jennifer wouldn’t let her stay home. In fact, she told her daughter she would be punished if she cried in school or showed in any way that she was upset: “They already got a piece of you,” Jennifer told her. “Don’t let them get any more.” So Jasmine stayed stone-faced, and nobody said a thing to her. The future sorority girl told me she’d caught Jasmine’s eye that first week and thought, “She must be thinking, You’ve seen me naked,” but she also noted that Jasmine didn’t betray anything. “She was just walking around the school as if nothing happened.”

Briana was not so lucky. The incident always seemed to be there, at school and at home. When she and her mother were watching TV and a romantic or sexual scene came on, her mother would leave the room. During arguments she’d say, “You have no reason to have an attitude after everything you’ve done.” One time, after her younger sister had misbehaved, her mom yelled, “Don’t end up like your sister!” while Briana stood close by. (Her mother later apologized.) Briana told me she has tried to make amends. She cleans up the kitchen every night after dinner, cleans the bathrooms. “Some days we’re okay, and some days I think it’s all she thinks about. She sent me a note: ‘I still think of you as my little girl.’ I understand where she’s coming from. But I’m not a little girl. I think she hasn’t accepted the fact that I’ve grown up yet.”

About a month after the investigation, Briana got into a fight with a boy on the bus. She was still “stressed out,” she said, and he kept singing a song she found annoying, and she asked him to please stop. He told her, “Nobody even wants you here” and called her a bitch, and she said, “I’m gonna beat the effing crap out of you,” and she hit him, and got suspended for three days. Those happened to be the days of softball tryouts, so she almost didn’t make the team. Then, when the coach did let her join the team, a teammate accused Briana of putting her college scholarship in jeopardy because her phone had been confiscated and maybe the school would rescind its offer. Briana used to babysit for one of the teacher’s kids, “but then his wife wouldn’t have anything to do with me.”

Studies on high-school kids’ general attitudes about sexting turn up what you’d expect—that is, the practice inspires a maddening, ancient, crude double standard. Researchers from the University of Michigan recently surveyed a few dozen teenagers in urban areas. Boys reported receiving sexts from girls “I know I can get it from” and said that sexting is “common only for girls with slut reputations.” But the boys also said that girls who don’t sext are “stuck up” or “prude.” The boys themselves, on the other hand, were largely immune from criticism, whether they sexted or not.

Sometimes in Louisa County, between interviews, I hung out with a group of 15-year-old boys who went to the library after school. They seemed like good kids who studied, played football, and occasionally got into fights, but no more than most boys. They’d watch videos of rappers from the area and talk about rumors in the rap world, like the one that the Chicago rapper Chief Keef, a rival of D.C.’s Shy Glizzy, had gotten a middle-school girl pregnant. They’d order and split a pizza to pass the time while waiting for their parents to leave work and pick them up. I started to think of them as the high school’s Greek chorus because, while I recognized much of what they said as 15-year-old-boy swagger—designed to impress me and each other, and not necessarily true—they still channeled the local sentiment. This is how one of them described his game to me: “A lot of girls, they stubborn, so you gotta work on them. You say, ‘I’m trying to get serious with you.’ You call them beautiful. You say, ‘You know I love you.’ You think about it at night, and then you wake up in the morning and you got a picture in your phone.”

“You wake up a happy man,” his friend said.

“Yeah, a new man.”

“Yeah, I’m the man.”

How do you feel about the girl after she sends it?, I asked.

“Super thots.”

“You can’t love those thots!”

“That’s right, you can’t love those hos.”

“Girls in Louisa are easy.”

And thus it was with Briana and her seducer: “He was a jerk. He didn’t talk to me anymore. And he just flirted with other girls.”

Louisa County teens, geographically spread out and chronically over scheduled, have relatively few opportunities to simply hang out with one another. Much of the high school’s social life takes place online.

Why do kids sext? One recent graduate told me that late at night, long after dinner and homework, her parents would watch TV and she would be in her room texting with her boyfriend. “You have a beautiful body,” he’d write. “Can I see it?” She knew it would be hard for him to ever really see it. She had a strict curfew and no driver’s license yet, and Louisa County is too spread out for kids to get anywhere on their own without a car.

“I live literally in the middle of nowhere,” the girl told me. “And this boy I dated lived like 30 minutes away. I didn’t have a car and my parents weren’t going to drop me off, so we didn’t have any alone time. Our only way of being alone was to do it over the phone. It was a way of kind of dating without getting in trouble. A way of being sexual without being sexual, you know? And it was his way of showing he liked me a lot and my way of saying I trusted him.”

In the Texas high-school study, boys and girls were equally likely to have sent a sext, but girls were much more likely to have been asked to—68 percent had been. Plenty of girls just laugh off the requests. When a boy asked Olivia, who graduated last year from Louisa County High, “What are you wearing?,” she told me she wrote back, “Stinky track shorts and my virginity rocks T-shirt.” A boy asked another student for a picture, so she sent him a smiling selfie. “I didn’t mean your face,” he wrote back, so she sent him one of her foot. But boys can be persistent—like, 20-or-30-texts-in-a-row persistent. “If we were in a dark room, what would we do?” “I won’t show it to anyone else.” “You’re only sending it to me.” “I’ll delete it right after.”

When surveyed, by far the most common reason kids give for sexting is that their boyfriend or girlfriend wanted the picture, and my interviews in Louisa County support that. In a study of 18-year-olds by Elizabeth Englander, 77 percent said the picture they sent caused no problems for them. The most common outcome of a sext, says Englander, is “nothing”: no loss, no gain. Most girls (70 percent) reported feeling some pressure to sext, but Englander singles out a distinct minority (12 percent) she calls the “pressured sexters,” who say they sexted only because they felt pressure. These girls are more vulnerable. They tend to start sexting at a younger age, and to sext because they think they can get a boyfriend, as opposed to because they already have one. They have a fantasy that “if they sext, the popular people will see them as daring and self-confident, and they could get a boyfriend they wouldn’t otherwise have gotten,” Englander says. But generally that doesn’t work out. Pressured sexters are much more apt to feel worse after sexting than other teens are—her interviews reveal them to be less self-confident about their bodies and less assured about their place in the social hierarchy after sending a sext.

One recent study found that young adults who engaged in sexting were more likely to report recent substance abuse and high-risk sexual behavior, like unprotected sex or sex with multiple partners. Another found exactly the opposite, that “sexting is not related to sexual risk behavior or psychological well-being.” In Englander’s study, many of the worrisome behaviors associated with sexting showed up more in those who had been pressured. They were more likely, for example, to engage in a practice researchers call self-cyberbullying, a disturbing phenomenon in which teens post mean things about themselves on social-media sites, usually to get sympathy or attention. Pressured sexters were also more likely to have had problems with sexual violence in dating.

A consistent finding is that sexting is a pretty good indicator of actual sexual activity. This year, researchers in Los Angeles published a study of middle-schoolers showing that those who sent sexts were 3.2 times more likely to be sexually active than those who didn’t. A story in the Los Angeles Times described the study as proof that “sexting is not a harmless activity.” But in fact the findings seem a little obvious. Since most kids who sext report doing so in the context of a relationship, it makes sense that sex and sexting would go together. As Amy Hasinoff, the author of the forthcoming book Sexting Panic: Rethinking Criminalization, Privacy, and Consent, points out, “Sexting is a form of sexual activity,” not a gateway to it.

But kids also sext, or ask for a sext, or gossip about sexting, for reasons only loosely related to sex. A recent New York Times story explored the practice of “vamping,” or staying up after midnight to check in with friends online. The kids in Louisa County, like kids everywhere, are chronically overscheduled. They stay late at school to play sports or to take part in other after-school activities, then go home and do their homework. Nighttime is the only time teens get to have intimate conversations and freely navigate their social world, argues Danah Boyd, the author of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. For the Louisa County kids, that means checking up on the latest drama on Twitter—“Anyone still awake?” is a common post-midnight tweet—and filling up their Instagram accounts, or asking a girl for a pic.

In the vast majority of cases, the picture lands only where it was meant to. Surveys consistently show that very few recipients share explicit selfies— without the sender’s consent. Englander’s surveys show that pictures resulting from pressure are much more likely to be shared, and that rarely ends well. In the worst-case scenario, the girl is devastated, and in rare instances takes drastic action. In 2008, Jessica Logan committed suicide after her nude photo circulated around her Ohio town, and there have been several similar suicide cases since then. A few people in Louisa County recalled the time a popular, pretty girl at school sent a picture to her boyfriend that he then sent out to his friends, and “by second period,” according to Olivia, “she was so upset that the guidance counselor had to send her home.” But mostly, even a picture that’s shared without consent travels between just two or three cellphones, and plays only a fleeting role in the drama of coming of age.

“The only reason to regret it is if you get caught,” one girl told me. And while getting caught—by parents, teachers, future employers—is no joke, police departments would still do well to remember that. Whether a sext qualifies as relatively safe sexual experimentation or a disaster often depends on who finds out about it. Marsha Levick, a co-founder of the nonprofit Juvenile Law Center, sees many cases where the police investigation does much more harm than the incident itself. “The rush to prosecute always baffles me,” she says. “It’s the exponential humiliation of these boys, or more often girls, in an official setting, knowing their photos will be shown to police officers and judges and probation officers. And the reality is, a lot of these officials are going to be men. That process itself is what’s traumatizing.”

As the new school year began, few people attended an evening community meeting on teen sexting held by Rusty McGuire, Louisa County’s main prosecutor.

About a month into the investigation, Donald Lowe concluded that the wide phone-collection campaign had added up to one massive distraction. Yes, the girls who appeared on Instagram had done something technically illegal by sending naked photos of themselves. But charging them for that crime didn’t make any sense. “They thought they were doing it privately,” he told me, reaching much the same conclusion as Levick. “We’re not helping them at all by labeling them at an early age.” Lowe recalled to me a girl in his own high-school class who had developed a reputation as “the county slut, and it took her years and years to overcome that.” These girls didn’t need their names in the paper to boot.

By June, Lowe had made the decision to wipe the photos off most of the phones and return them to the girls, and most of the boys, with a warning: “We don’t want to put anything on your record, but the next time we come around, we’re not going to be so nice about it.” He held on to a few phones and got search warrants for a few more, and began to focus on what seemed more like the actual crime: the posting of explicit photos without consent on Instagram.

Within the first day or two of the investigation, Lowe had developed a pretty good suspicion of who was behind that. A few of the boys he talked to—and a couple of girls as well—had told him they’d sent photos directly to boys who they thought had set up the accounts. A few others had sent them to a go-between, but still had a decent idea of who was setting up the accounts. The organizers had apparently spent weeks gathering photos. They said they would open the accounts only when they had a lot of pictures in hand, and that anyone who sent one in would be guaranteed access. Lowe wasn’t sure whether it was just a couple of boys working together or with a slightly larger group of accomplices. His investigators subpoenaed Instagram for the IP address of the accounts’ originating computer, but because of a technical aberration, that turned out to be inconclusive. He continued to search for other, solid evidence.

Lowe would not confirm to me the identity of the main suspects in the investigation, but according to some of the kids and parents, they are two brothers—one a student at the school, one a recent graduate. One was a troublemaker known for hitting people on the bus, and the other a popular kid. One was under 18 and the other over, meaning that if they were charged, they could be subject to very different legal treatment. The key would be to figure out their intent—were the boys trying to make porn available to adults, or was it a “me and my buddies want to collect a bunch of pictures” kind of deal?

Lowe strongly suspected the latter, that this was about “raging hormones and bragging.” Kids, after all, described the accounts to him, and to me, as “funny,” “just something to laugh at,” “just a bunch of friends sitting around having a laugh.” If that were true, at least for any minors involved, a child-porn charge seemed too “Big Brother” to Lowe, and he and the local prosecutor might want to come up with a lesser charge or even no charge at all, especially because the account had been closed down so quickly and had been seen by relatively few people, limiting potential harm. But largely because of community pressures, he had to consider the possibility that he’d just discovered “the tip of an iceberg of some organized-crime thing.”

In late July, rumors were spreading among parents that the boys who had set up the Instagram accounts might be part of a gang. There had been some prominent gang activity in the area lately, and one local crew had been involved in the shooting of a cop. Maybe these gangs were also involved in child trafficking; maybe they would use the young girls’ pictures as an advertisement to lure johns. There was no evidence at all that whoever was behind the accounts was part of a gang, or that local gangs were involved in sex trafficking. In fact the theory seemed pretty far-fetched. But the mere mention of it was enough for Lowe to say—or feel pressured to say—that he couldn’t “rule it out.” At the time of this writing, in mid-September, the investigation was ongoing.

Many teen-sexting cases are aggravated by vague fears of predation and pedophilia, at times creating irresistible momentum. But “the conjecture that the Internet or sexting has increased the number of molesters or their motivation to offend has not really been supported by the evidence,” says David Finkelhor, who runs the Crimes Against Children Research Center. In fact, all of the evidence suggests that child molesting and sex offenses in general have declined over the period in which sexting has become popular, Finkelhor says. His group analyzed seven major sources of data about violence against children and found large declines in sexual abuse of children since the early 1990s. From 2003 to 2011, a span that coincides almost exactly with the rise of sexting, sexual-victimization rates of minors declined by 25 percent. Finkelhor cites a handful of possible factors but, ironically, one is that kids have started to do their “risk taking” and “independence testing” online, which could minimize their exposure to actual violence and physical harm.

“The rush to prosecute always baffles me. It’s the exponential humiliation of these boys, or more often girls, in an official setting … That process itself is what’s traumatizing.”

Cases that turn up genuine signs of child pornography should of course be investigated and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. But child-porn laws are designed explicitly to protect children from adults. Cases involving only minors fall into a different category, and deserve entirely different labels and punishments—or no punishments. Getting these standards right is important, because the investigation itself causes its own trauma, because not every law-enforcement officer is as considered as Donald Lowe, and because something that a third of older teenagers do routinely shouldn’t remain a crime, much less a crime on the order of child porn.

Many legal-reform advocates say the key is to distinguish between voluntarily sharing a photo and having it shared without your consent. “We should draw the line between my daughter stupidly sending a photo of herself to her boyfriend and her boyfriend sending it to all his friends to humiliate her,” Levick, of the Juvenile Law Center, told Slate last year. “The first is stupid. The second is more troubling and should be criminal.” Levick’s group has been trying for years to get states to recognize the difference between sexting that’s part of normal sexual exploration and sexting that’s coercive or violates privacy.

And yet few lawmakers are willing to concede that naked pictures of teenagers, even if voluntarily shared, are in any way acceptable. As Levick says, “I think this is coming from grown‑ups who fear that their kids are doing things they don’t understand. The technology is both hyper-visible and invisible, and parents are spooked by it. So kids are finding what’s a normal part of adolescent experimentation being criminalized.”

In cases involving only minors, the poles at either end of the continuum of all that a sext can represent seem pretty clear. Uploading another minor’s naked picture to the Web, where anyone might eventually find it, should be a criminal act, though not one that should necessarily be prosecuted as child porn. Taking a selfie and sending it to someone who might be receptive to it, or receiving a selfie and keeping it, should not be criminal at all. What’s in between—such as forwarding a selfie to one or 10 friends without consent—is more difficult. In Louisa County, the deputies gave an especially stern lecture to the boys they sensed had solicited pictures so they could forward them on to friends, taking advantage of the vulnerability of certain girls. The nonconsensual sharing of pictures, even among just a few people, should probably count as a criminal act, as long as there is prosecutorial discretion. But even in these instances, the policing should, if possible, be left to teachers and parents, not to the actual police. Or in some cases to no one, because since when was any version of adolescent sexuality fair and free of pain?

Michael Harmony, the commander of the southern-Virginia branch of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, says that as teen sexting has become more pervasive, cases involving large numbers of kids have multiplied quickly.

Shortly before the police got involved in Louisa County, Ryan, a quiet junior known as a math whiz, received the picture of Briana’s breasts from a friend at the beginning of lunch. “Guess who ??? wht do u think?” Throughout the whole afternoon, he could not get the photo out of his head: the size and shape of the breasts—which he described, improbably, as floating “like the Nerf ball I once threw too far into the waves”—and also all the freckles, suggesting summer and romantic surprises. Ryan had only one other similar photo, which a generous friend had sent his way. But being out of that game, as he saw it, had its advantages. He was free of the never-ending status competition at school—who had a new picture, who had the most, who had one no one else could get—and could just let his imagination wander.

He waited until late at night, when his mom was watching TV, to look at the photo again. Seated on his bed, he pulled out his phone. The first thing he noticed was that his battery bar was red. Now there was the problem of finding the power cord, and stretching it as far as the center of the bed. He noticed a text from his coach—had he forgotten a practice? Was there some piece of equipment he had to remember to bring in the next day? Finally he pulled up the picture. He knew Briana; he’d helped her with math once. And he couldn’t get the image of the girl sitting in class, puzzling over a problem, out of his head. He suddenly felt guilty, and also—because he’d heard about some boys collecting photos for an Instagram account—a little afraid. He hesitated, and then deleted the picture and got up to retrieve his laptop. He opened the first free porn site that popped into his head and typed in milf. Immediately, dozens of images flirted for his attention. He considered one in the second row, but then scrolled down a little further to find a curvier type, although a few weeks later, when he was recounting the moment to me, he couldn’t remember any other details beyond “long brown hair” and “big boobs.”

Briana’s parents—and Briana herself—would probably be creeped out if they knew how this scene had played out. And most parents would be upset if they learned that a naked picture of their daughter had showed up on a boy’s phone, even if he did delete it. But that such a photo should come to light doesn’t mean the girl and the boy are having sex, or that the boy is a stalker, or that the photo is going to show up on the Web.

Outside of actual romantic relationships, sexts usually seem to play a very minimal role in anyone’s sex life. In Thy Neighbor’s Wife, Gay Talese’s 1981 book about the sexual revolution, a teenage boy spends hours looking at his favorite picture in a photographic-art magazine, treating the image with an archivist’s care. But the high-school boys I spoke with barely glance at the sexts they receive. They gloat inwardly or brag to friends; they store them in special apps or count them. But actual fantasies come from porn, freely and widely available on the Internet. “Guys would pile them up,” one girl who had graduated a year earlier told me, referring to sexts they’d gotten. “It was more of a baseball-card, showing-off kind of thing.” Olivia described it as “like when they were little boys, playing with Pokémon cards.”

So how should parents think about sexting, especially when their daughters are involved? The research suggests that if your child is sexting but not yet in high school, you should worry more. And that you should do the same if your daughter has no real relationship with the boy she’s sending sexts to, but is pursuing a relationship, or just responding to repeated requests for a photo. Sexts don’t create sexual dynamics; they reveal them. Parents should use the opportunity to find out what those dynamics are, lest they accidentally make things worse.

What bothered Jennifer, Jasmine’s mother, about her daughter’s picture was not that her little girl was all grown up. It was the awkwardness of her daughter’s pose, the fact that she had to be really talked into sending that photo. Jennifer fits no one’s image of a perfect mother. As a kid, she had done drugs and gotten into fights and had a baby at 15. But life experience has made her a very perceptive parent. Another one of her daughters, who is two years younger than Jasmine, “is rebellious as hell. If she sent a picture, it’s because she damn well wanted to. She’d be like, snap, snap, ‘This is me,’ all over the place. If she didn’t want to, she’d send a picture of a cat and say, ‘That’s the only pussy you’re gonna get!’ But this one”—meaning Jasmine—“she’s a pushover. She would do anything for anybody. Even with stupid things, like her sister asks her to fold the laundry even though she folded the last 20 loads, and she’ll say, ‘Sure.’ It infuriates me. Girl, stand up for yourself! You should do something because you want to do it, not because somebody pushed you into it.”

Danah Boyd, the author of It’s Complicated, often talks about social media as a window into the teenage world. A parent who reacts purely by scaling up the restrictions is missing a chance to know what’s actually going on with their child, to know things that in previous eras would have stayed hidden from them. In her talks, Boyd advises parents not to, for example, shut down accounts. Kids will just find ways to open new ones under names that have nothing to do with their real ones, that their parents could never track, or they will migrate to new platforms. (Many of the kids I met in Louisa County used inventive, inscrutable names for their Instagram accounts, names only their peers knew about.) Instead, parents should take a deep breath—even in the most uncomfortable scenarios—and ask questions. Kids can have a million motivations to send a naked picture of themselves, and unless you ask, you won’t know whether the one that was in their head seems more like reasonable experimentation or something else.

A recent review of 10 official sexting-education campaigns concluded that all of them erred on the side of what the researchers called “abstinence”—that is, advising teens not to sext at all. These tend to link sexting tightly to ruinous consequences, but that’s a problem, because ruination doesn’t normally follow the sending of a sext. “If we present it as inevitable, then we’ve lost our audience,” says Elizabeth Englander, who leads groups about sexting in middle and high schools, “because they know very well that in the vast majority of cases it doesn’t happen.” If you say otherwise, “then the kids know immediately that you don’t know anything.”

In the vast majority of cases, the picture lands only where it was meant to. But pictures sent as a result of pressure are much more likely to be shared, and that rarely ends well.

Instead, Englander eases kids into the dangers slowly. She usually starts out by talking about how in life, it’s sensible to avoid risk. You wear a seat belt even though the chances of a fatal crash are slim. This way, she says, the kids understand that she knows the risks of a picture getting out are rare, but they also understand that if it does get out, the effects on their social life and future could be catastrophic. She gets the kids talking about why they send the pictures, so she can narrow in on the more risky situations she has identified from her research—namely, ones involving lots of pressure and very little trust.

Teens in Louisa County, like teens everywhere, hear a lot about sex, but really know only a little about it. Briana’s Twitter feed is a mix of little-girl cute and grown-woman sexy: a fuzzy kitten, inspirational quotes from Athletes for Christ, an ass in a bow thong. Any senior at Louisa County High School can tick off the names of girls who got pregnant in the past year. But the kids in Louisa County are also part of a generation that’s seen teen pregnancy decline to a record low. Teens are waiting longer to have sex than they did in the recent past. The majority now report that their first sexual experience was with a steady partner. Given how inundated and unfazed they are by sexual imagery, perhaps the best hope is that one day, in the distant future, a naked picture of a girl might simply lose its power to humiliate.

Homecoming at Louisa County High

In late August, about two weeks after the new school year started, Rusty McGuire, the Louisa County prosecutor, gave an evening community presentation at the middle school about sexting. He cited statistics showing how popular it was and explained that under Virginia’s child-porn laws, it was a serious crime. However, he acknowledged that sternly explaining to kids that it’s illegal or has long-term consequences “isn’t working.” As an alternative, he suggested humor, and showed a campaign called “Give It a Ponder,” run by LG. The series involves the actor James Lipton pinning a beard on kids who are about to sext, so they pause for a sober second thought, and it is, indeed, pretty funny. But only about a dozen parents and kids were there to see it.

Instead, the entire community seemed to be outside on the vast fields near the high school and middle school, seduced by the Thursday-night pause before the first home football game of the season, which would take place the next night. The sun was dropping and taking the worst of the August heat. Little kids were kicking up dirt on the baseball field or practicing their cheerleading (“Time to get loud! Time to represent!”). Parents were leaning against their bumpers drinking water or soda, and teenagers were using their bodies in ways the parents could admire: slamming into tackling dummies at the final pregame practice, doing sumo squats, running around the track.

Briana was there; her volleyball team had just won its game in three sets. “New me, new life, gotta get my shit together,” she’d retweeted before the start of school. Her profile picture showed her in a bikini, but she was staying clear of trouble. So far she’d earned all A’s. Her mom was trusting her to get her learner’s permit and even asked her why she’d decided to go to homecoming with a friend instead of a boyfriend. (“That’s the last thing on my mind,” she’d replied.) Coming out of the gym after the game, she and her friends were as loud and boisterous as the football players who were psyching themselves up for the following night’s game. A mom came up and pinched her butt: “Good job, Bri!” Nearby, a boy and a girl from school were enacting an airport-worthy goodbye.

Briana and two teammates leaned into each other and took a picture. “Photobomb!” a boy yelled behind them, but they barely paid him any attention. It was just another picture, and this one was theirs.