Los Angeles, CA — Cell phones are a must have these days, especially for the average pubescent, hormone charged “gossip girls.” It is their life source, their portal to the social world. Life without those little devices would be devastating to a teen’s high school reputation. But recently it has been more than gossip floating around.

“Sexting” is the newest trend among teens that could lead to child pornography charges. The proclaimed national phenomenon is a practice in which teens take nude or suggestive pictures of themselves and send them to peers via cell phone or Internet. It can start as a simple smiley face or coded text messages, then lead to plans to commit sexual favors and self made pornography.

A national survey published by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy (NCPTUP) revealed that 39% of all teens are posting or sending sexually suggestive messages via text, e-mail, or instant messaging. Overall, 20% of both male and female teens are sending nude photos or videos of themselves as well. Even young teen girls between the ages of 13 and 16 are participating in these trends.

Adolescents who have done some sexting of their own say those risqué messages are intended for boyfriends or girlfriends. But many of these images circulate and spread over the Internet and across school campuses like wildfire.

Jessica Sheets, Senior Manager of communication at NCPTUP says she does not see this problem going away any time soon.

“Ten years ago you couldn’t find a phone with a camera,” Sheets says, “Now you can’t find a phone that doesn’t have one.”

Rebecca Hagelin, author of “30 Ways in 30 Days to Save Your Family” says it is important to monitor your teen’s social activities.

“This should be a wake up call for parents on how the highly, over sexualized media is influencing their children,” she says, “Kids are creating their own media and of course the media they are going to create is the kind they see every day.”

She says that this is a moral issue and “young women are being taught to get ahead through their sexual power instead of their brains.” She adds that today’s sexualized media may also lead to pornography addiction and other destructive behaviors among young men. Hagelin reminds that this is not only a moral offense, but it is also illegal.

Possession of nude or semi-nude images of persons under the age of 18 can lead to child pornography charges.

The LAUSD says the district has not dealt with many of these cases, but that does not mean it is not happening. Barbara Colwell of the Crisis Intervention Services for the LAUSD says if there were any reports of sexting within the school district, it would be handled first with the school police. She says this kind of issue will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, but some disciplinary actions would be taken.

In March, a group of students were caught sexting at McAuliffe Middle School in the Los Alamitos Unified School District. No charges were made, but the students were placed on in-school suspension.

In January, two teen boys at a Pennsylvania high school were charged with child pornography after receiving nude or semi-nude photos of three 14 and 15 year old girls. Other states like Vermont are looking to legalize sexting.

There is much debate about the topic among bloggers, comparing the nation’s lack of control over drug trafficking to that of teens exploring their sexuality. But it’s more than curiosity.

Sheets says this is more than a trend, it is a serious and dangerous problem. Besides the reputational issues that could haunt a teen for the rest of his or her life, it has been reported that some students become clinically depressed to the point of suicide.

Hagelin suggests parents should embrace technology and educate themselves so they can talk to their children.

“Kids need cell phones for safety reasons and because it’s part of their world,” she says. “But put limits on them. Don’t give them unlimited time and text. Many parents default to taking [cell phones] away. That’s a big mistake.”

Because parents are becoming more involved with this issue, Sheets says, “There is a chance in which we can curb this phenomenon and slow it down.”

Parents can learn how to protect their teens by visiting sites like howtosaveyourfamily.com and thenationalcampaign.org.