Sexting is the sending of sexually explicit photos or text through one's cell phone to friends or potential suitors.
The activity is prevalent among youth, with as much as 60 percent of teenagers are taking part, according to Detective Cory Husske, Fort Dodge/Webster County Cyber Crimes Unit, said.
"Surveys have shown that most instances of sexting are occurring after school and in the evenings from within the child's own bedroom," Husske said.
Kids engage in sexting to entice others, to demonstrate sexual attraction, and to prove love and loyalty.
Once those images are created and sent out, though, they can stay online forever.
"What the kids need to understand most is that the short-term thinking they are using to make these decisions can have a very long-term affect on their future," he said. "Once they send a picture of themselves out they have no control over what happens to it from there."
Kids take an even greater risk, though, when they send out sexually explicit photos of themselves.
"Persons under the age of 18 sending sexually explicit images of themselves to another may be found guilty of producing child pornography," Husske said. "Further, persons who receive and/or pass on such images to others may be found guilty of possession and or the distribution of child pornography."
He added, "These are all federal offenses that come with very strict and powerful punishments depending on circumstances."
While this is the case, the Fort Dodge Police Department is not out to make children into felons, Husske said.
"It has not been, and will not be, the active intent of this police department to go after our city's children and treat them as criminals for making poor and uninformed decisions with their cell phones," he said. "However, this does not mean that we will not investigate and prosecute cases in which our children are being victimized as a result of those decisions."
Husske believes parents should be diligent and more willing to talk about the issue.
"I am a proponent of children turning in their cell phones at regular times daily to the parents as a matter of routine," he said. "If the child understands it is just one of the rules that comes with having a phone, then they will accept it. It is my hope that we might start reducing the means and opportunities that these kids have to exploit themselves and each other."
Parents first need to get over the idea that it's "not my child."
"I would like parents to be realistic about what their child is capable of," Husske said. "We want to selectively believe only the best about our kids, but when as high a percent of all teenagers are actively sexting each other, someone has to be willing to admit that their child is human and therefore imperfect."
He added, "I have not seen a sexting case yet where the parents were not totally shocked at what their child was sending and receiving on their phone."
Husske said parents also need to be aware of their children's passwords for all locking applications.
"If a child possesses pictures they don't want found, many times they will download an app that will act as a secure or secret folder to hide the images," he said. "Common apps are 'Picture Safe' and 'Photo Vault.' Clever programs exist that disguise photos and videos behind what looks like an ordinary calculator app. When the correct number combination is entered the user can see the secret files."