Before leaving school for summer vacation, San Diego Unified School District students were given an assignment: they were encouraged not to sext.
While some young people consider sending explicit photos, texts or videos from their mobile device part of teenage life, educators tried to hammer home the point that the result can sometimes be catastrophic.
“Even when there are cautionary tales which schools teach them, young people often feel the consequences of texting won’t happen to them. But once that material is out there, it’s there for the world to see," said La Jolla psychologist Dr. Valerie Rock, whose patients include sexting victims.
That message is not a mystery.
The San Diego Police Foundation talks to students and parents at schools. Many children have direct knowledge of someone who sexts, including the 30 students who attended six San Diego high schools and a middle school caught up in a 2012 sexting scandal that made news.
But for all these teaching moments, young people are still sexting in alarming numbers.
“If you take this category of young people 12-17, seven out of 10 have received some sort of unsolicited sexual something," Internet safety expert Bob Lotter told NBC 7. "It might be a text, might be a picture, might be a story. Thirty percent of the time, they will contain some kind of inappropriate picture."
One photo almost ruined Allyson Pereira’s life. Pereira, now a national anti-bullying and sexting awareness advocate, grew up in New Jersey in a loving, strict home. She told NBC 7 that her nightmare began when she was a straight A, 16-year-old student who made one bad choice following a request for a topless photo from a boyfriend who recently broke up with her.
"He sent me a text saying if I sent him a naked picture, he would get back together with me," she said. "I was a normal teenager, I was impulsive, I didn’t think anything of it. I just thought I was wanted, he wanted to see me, so me and my two friends, we sent of picture of myself to him."
But her ex-boyfriend never responded to her. The next day, she found out the photo had gone viral.
"I was called 'ho', 'whore' and 'slut' in the hallways," said Pereira. "People would re-enact the picture every time they passed me. They even sent the picture to my parents."
The harassment and bullying got so bad, Pereira attempted suicide before getting help. She now speaks across the country to students, educators and lawmakers. She is one of few victim advocates who speak out because there is so much shame involved. She does it to help other young people.
If so many teens aren't policing themselves, who should? Some say schools, but educators are often limited legally as to how far they can go to monitor children and their phones.
Others point out new laws should be drafted, but enforcement can be complicated.
In a case like Pereira's, in which an ex-boyfriend distributed an explicit photo he requested of her, it is she — under many existing laws — who could be prosecuted first, and if she is convicted, she may even be required to register as a sex offender.
Advocates say the best solution is actually quite simple. Parents need to get actively involved first by talking frankly to their kids.
"I think the responsibility is to have a very open dialogue with their teens and to not be afraid to embarrass them," Rocks said. "Better to offend Junior than to do damage control later."
Lotter said parents unapologetically should monitor what's landing on and leaving their child's mobile device.
Lotter, whose company makes software which police and prosecutors which has helped prosecute almost 2,000 Internet crimes, also makes a consumer version for parents called mymobilewatchdog which can monitor emails, texts, photos and other communication.
"It’s not spyware. The child knows it’s on the phone. Younger children are so happy to have a phone, they are generally OK with being monitored," Lotter explained. "You say, 'Look I’m just doing this to keep you safe.' As they are 14 and older and more concerned with their privacy, the parent has the ability to dial in levels of privacy."
And should an outsider contact a child that could prove harmful, the software stores that information in a forensic database that can be turned over to authorities.
“Cars are dangerous but we don't just let our kids get in them and drive without giving them education first," said Pereira. "But we hand them cellphones and the Internet without really teaching them the consequences.”