The Grayson County Sheriff’s Office announced Thursday that it and the Leitchfield Police Department have been investigating numerous cases in which minors are sharing nude photos of themselves with other children and adults.

According to Grayson County Sheriff Norman Chaffins, this situation usually begins with a young girl sending a nude photo of herself to her boyfriend and then he shares the photo with his friends, with or without the girl’s knowledge or permission.

“Additionally, we have seen where the boys are also sharing photos of themselves with the girls and other youth,” said Chaffins, adding that many of these photos are being shared through through the mobile application Snapchat, as well as text messages and other types of electronic communications.

According to Chaffins, children who share these photos do not realize that many of them have a tracking locater attached to them and could give pedophiles or thieves the address from where the photo was sent and, possibly, even the room it was taken in.

In addition to putting themselves in danger, children who share nude photos of themselves are also putting their friends and family in danger, police say.

“When a photo is sent electronically via a social media app, it is likely that someone else has access to that photo," Chaffins said. "That person is likely someone that does not have the best interest at heart when it comes to tracking down the teen that sent it.”

He also said that, even if the photos are deleted, after being sent to the internet, they will never go away.

“The photos are likely to surface on a stranger's or child molester’s phone, child pornography websites, and even law enforcement’s Crimes Against Children Task Force’s radar, thus, potentially ruining any aspirations or career choices the child may have had,” said Chaffins.

In addition to potentially damaging a juvenile's future, possessing images of anyone under the age of 18 is also a criminal offense and is punishable by one-to-20 years in prison depending on the offense.

“It should also be noted that it does not read in the Kentucky Revised Statutes that if the child is the one that produces or transmits the image they get a free pass," Chaffins said. "As a matter of fact, there have been juveniles placed on the Sex Offender Registry for life for producing and/or sharing child porn images.”

Grayson County High School Resource Officer Ian Renfrow, of the Leitchfield Police Department, has investigated several "sexting" complaints over the last five years and has seen the effects these situations have on the young people involved.

“Imagine waking up to find yourself totally nude in front of thousands of strangers under a spotlight and not understanding how you got there," Renfrow said. 'Essentially, that is what happens when a youth shares nude photos of themselves. The original sender of the photos or videos begins as a consenting actor; however, the sender does not have any control over the photo or video once it is sent. The producer becomes unable to control how the photo or video is used and cannot stop its distribution as it is sent from one person to the next until it is hopefully intercepted by law enforcement.”

According to Chaffins, the GCSO and LPD have investigated graphic child porn cases involving children as young as second through fifth grade, with the child having produced the images.

“These youngsters do not have the maturity level to handle the responsibilities of social media safety and the use of a cellular device without the monitoring or oversight of an adult,” Chaffins said.

Children are taught safe usage of social media and the internet at school with the support of local law enforcement, but, police say that, in order for it to stick, the education needs to continue at home.

“Take ownership of your child’s devices and social media accounts," Chaffins said. "Know their passwords. The biggest deterrent to online predators is when a parent takes control of that device to ensure the safety of that youth. Take time out of your day to research the dangers and find resources to protect your child from making that potentially life changing mistake due to the freedom and inability to properly handle so much technology.”

Chaffins also suggests taking further steps to ensure your children are safe while on the internet such as paying to have a clone of their child’s phone or device in order to check messages, pictures, and videos. He also recommends that they familiarize themselves with the different apps on their children’s devices, their friends lists on social media, and their contact lists.

Parents should also be aware that there are apps children can use to hide what they are doing from their parents, according to Chaffins, adding that that apps are created and modified constantly to help people conceal files and data on their phones.

“There are even apps out there that serve as 'counter-surveillance' that will alert the user of any attempt by a parent to 'spy' on the device," he said. "For example, Photo Vault apps that appear as a calculator and use a specific mathematic equation as a security code to access hidden photos. There is also a camera function that will use a forward facing camera to take a photo of anyone who logs into the phone, tipping your child off as to what you have viewed on their device."

Chaffins wants parents to know that law enforcement is doing everything possible to protect children from the dangers of social media and online predators, but this can be difficult because many social media websites do not keep online information for fear of a lawsuit.

Additionally, he said that many sites do not honor search warrants from the United States because they store information on servers outside of the U.S., making it nearly impossible to prosecute cases.

“However, we will continue to investigate and take every case seriously and treat them with common sense and compassion” Chaffins said.

For more information or resources regarding online safety, contact Renfrow at the Leitchfield Police Department by phone at 270-259-3850 or Grayson County High School at 270-259-4078 or Chaffins at the Grayson County Sheriff’s Office by phone at 270-259-3024.