By Barbara Hall, CNN
(CNN) – Nearly 30 percent of high school students in the Houston area admit they've sent a nude picture of themselves to a friend by email or text. That's according to a study by the University of Texas Medical Branch. If the sample represents national rates, as the study authors believe, millions of kids could be engaging in this risky behavior. And emotional and legal consequences can be severe.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only 19 states and Guam have some type of legislation that addresses teen "sexting."
[2:43] "Generally the legislation reduces penalties or creates educational or alternative kinds of programs for kids," says NCSL Senior Fellow Pam Greenberg.
In the 31 states where "sexting" has not been addressed, teens who are caught taking or sending sexually explicit images can be prosecuted under existing child pornography laws.
[2:38] "The kids who send these kinds of messages to each other are not real sex offenders. But our laws still often treat them that way," says Penny Clute, a retired City Court Judge in Plattsburgh, New York. "We don't have laws yet that recognize this phenomenon, this actuality, the reality of what kids are doing."
When a high school boy sent Allyson Pereira's topless photo to all of his buddies, she did not go to the police because, she says, she sent him the picture in the first place:
[2:00] "I would have been charged with making and distribution of child pornography and faced 10 years in jail, having to register as a sex offender, and that would have been completely devastating on top of everything else I was dealing with, " she says.
Pereira's case prompted legislation in New Jersey that ensures sexting teens are no longer treated as sex offenders. The law went into effect last year.