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Is Your Teen “Sexting?”


When officials at a southwest Ohio high school confiscated a male freshman’s cell phone and discovered nude photos of girls on the screen, they called the police. This week, two students were charged in Warren County of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a first-degree misdemeanor.


Sadly, charges like these are becoming more common, leading Warren County Prosecutor Rachel Hutzel (who prosecuted the above case) to ask legislators to write a law that works more effectively at combating the teen “fad” of distributing naked photos of minors.


Like many other teen behaviors, the consequences for sending a photo of your girlfriend to a hundred other people, or posting it on the Internet, can amount to criminal charges that will haunt you for years or even the guilt of contributing to a suicide. That’s what happened last summer when 18-year-old Jessie Logan couldn’t take the social humiliation after a nude photo sent to her boyfriend was broadcast to hundreds of students.


The tragedy prompted a close look at what is being called “sexting” – the activity of sending sexual messages along with revealing photos to others, usually boyfriends and girlfriends. The problem is these images are very easy to forward to hundreds or thousands and are often used as revenge after a young relationship (invariably) breaks up. If they get on the Internet, they may be “cached” by search engines or harvested by other websites and will be impossible to delete.


During the fall of 2008, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy surveyed teens and young adults to find out just how prevalent this practice was. The discovered an amazing 39% of teens had sent or posted sexually suggestive messages and 48% reported they had received sexual messages.


For the victim – usually the person in the photograph – the outcomes can range from bullying, abuse and mass degradation and – amazingly – even criminal charges. Yes, criminal charges for the victim. In an extensive article on this topic in the March 11, 2009 Orlando Sentinel, it reports that in February 2009 a 15-year-old Pennsylvania girl was charged with creating child pornography after sending photos of herself to an adult male.


Of course the perpetrator, who decides to distribute the images out of revenge or for whatever other reasons, is even more vulnerable to acquiring a criminal record. Because many high school seniors are legally adults, the consequences are even more serious.


That same Sentinel article tells what happened to 18-year-old Bryce Dixon who, after forwarding a photo of his 16-year-old girlfriend’s nude breasts to another teen (a photo that she allowed him to take), found himself facing various charges including the transmission of child pornography.


For Phillip Alpert living in Orange Country CA, the nude photos he received from a girl he occasionally dated were unsolicited. A couple of years later their relationship turned sour and after she taunted him, he sent the images to more than 70 people – including members of the girl’s family and teachers. The resulting charges brought against him have left him serving five years probation and he is registered as a sex offender until he turns 43.


Now he is unable to leave the county, he can’t live with his father because his home is too close to a school, and he must attend classes for sex offenders where he spends time with people who have committed crimes of rape and molestation against children. Neighbors knock on his door because he’s in the sex offender database and he was banned from attending Valencia Community College because of his status.


“I didn’t know how bad of a decision it was,” says Alpert in the Sentinel, who is now 19. For teens tempted to try the same trick, his advice is succinct: “Don’t do it. It’s stupid.”


At this point, parents are logically asking “Why?” Why would a teen want to take a nude photo of herself (or, sometimes, himself) and run the risk of having it become a “public” display?


The reasons are many, but they usually lead to the age-old issue of peer pressure. A recent survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found one in five teens had already sent or posted nude or semi-nude photos of themselves. (An amazing 59% of young adults, defined as between 20 and 26-years-old had participated in this as well.) Of those teen girls who admitted to sending such messages, half (51%) say they did so because of “pressure from a guy.” Only 18% of boys cited pressure from female counterparts as a reason to send sexual messages. A whopping 85% of teen girls say they sent such pictures or messages to “get or keep a guy’s attention.” Nearly one-quarter of both teen girls and boys cited general pressure by friends as another reason why they sent or posted sexual content.


Other reasons range from wanting “to feel sexy” or, like in the case of Phillip Alpert, young girls will even volunteer such images as a “sexy present” – 43% of teen girls cited this reason as motivation.


Another factor that has allowed this pernicious pastime to flourish is the readily available access to digital cameras. Ten years ago you had to take photographs to the drug store and get them developed. Now there’s a camera in virtually every cell phone and these two technologies combine to allow capturing the image and sending it incredibly quickly – before you even think about the ramifications.


That means if your teen has a phone with a camera, they could be at risk of becoming enticed to try these dangerous tricks. Awareness of this issue is very important, and websites like www.thatsnotcoool.com (sponsored by the Family Violence Prevention Fund) and a complete section on the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy are popping up to try and educate teens and parents about the dangers of sexting.


The latter site offers a list of tips for teens and parents. Briefly here are their suggestions, beginning with parents:

1.      Talk to your kids about what they are doing in cyberspace.

2.      Know who your kids are communicating with.

3.      Consider limitations on electronic communication.

4.      Be aware of what your teens are posting publicly.

5.      Set expectations.


Suggestions for teens:

1.      Don’t assume anything you send or post is going to remain private.

2.      There is no changing your mind in cyberspace – anything you send or post will never truly go away.

3.      Don’t give in to pressure to do something that makes you uncomfortable, even in cyberspace.

4.      Consider the recipient’s reaction.

5.      Nothing is truly anonymous.


Rod Gustafson

Besides writing this column for the Parents Television Council, Rod Gustafson authors Parent Previews® - a newspaper and Internet column (published in association with movies.com) that reviews movies from a parent's perspective. He's also the film critic for a major Canadian TV station, various radio stations and serves on the executive of the Alberta Association for Media Awareness. Finally, his most important role is being the father to four wonderful children and husband to his beautiful wife (and co-worker) Donna.

Parenting and the Media by Rod Gustafson

The Parents Television Council - www.parentstv.org

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