Wake-up call: Almost 20 percent of teens (ages 13 – 19) admit to sending a nude or semi-nude picture of themselves through cell phone or email. Awake now? Good.
Just this year, 18-year-old Jessie Logan of Cincinnati made the mistake of her life – literally. The girl decided to send her boyfriend a picture of herself – nude – and in so doing, took part in what’s now referred to as “sexting” – the practice of sending sexually explicit images of one’s self via cell phone.
Miss Logan’s mistake was in pressing “send.” Within days her nude image was forwarded by her boyfriend onto friends and then to strangers, ultimately circulating among countless numbers of high school students in more than 100 high schools in Cincinnati. Tragically, Miss Logan endured so much embarrassment, pain and shame that she ultimately chose to take her life.
According to a 2008 survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, sexting is now a widespread phenomenon across the nation. Almost 20 percent of teens (ages 13 – 19) admit to sending a nude or semi-nude picture of themselves electronically (via email or cell phone).
Twenty-two percent are teen girls; 18 percent are teen boys. Eleven percent of young teen girls (ages 13 -16) have admitted to doing this as well. And 31 percent of teens say they have received a nude or semi-nude photo of someone else.
Sexting is not completely new, according to Sgt. Charles Warner of the Franklin Police Department. Warner says sexting has probably been around as long as camera phones have.
“I think what kids don’t really understand today is that when you hit send, you can’t control where the image goes. You may intend it for a boyfriend or girlfriend to see, but it can easily end up in the hands of hundreds or even thousands of people,” says Warner.
Beth K. Vogt, mother of four and parenting blogger of”Mommy Come Lately,” says that cell phones make it easy for kids to engage in risky behavior.
“I don’t think in the past kids would think to take their camera, take a nude photo of themselves and then take that film to Wal-Mart to get it developed, then pick up those photos and hand it off to someone at school,” says Vogt.”There were too many barriers to something like that. Cell phones remove that barrier. It feels like it’s no big deal,” she adds.
“It’s disturbing that kids are doing it,” says Maggie Faill, a Middle Tennessee mom of four. “I didn’t think it was something kids would do.”
The combination of raging hormones and advanced technology may create the perfect storm for sexting, but it can land teens in hot water. Taking, sending and possessing a sexually explicit image of a minor is considered child pornography in the eyes of the law.
Although states and districts vary in their punishments, both the sender and receiver could potentially face criminal punishments for sexting, such as facing child pornography charges, going to jail and having to register as a sex offender.
“In Williamson County, we look into prosecuting the sender and the receiver because the sender voluntarily sent it, and the receiver voluntarily shared it,” says Jennifer Moore, assistant district attorney for the 21st Judicial District.”A lot of times parents think, ‘My daughter is the victim here. It’s her picture being shown all over school.’ But our view of it is, your daughter is the one who hit send.”
In Tennessee, there are currently no laws that specifically target sexting but this may change. Counties vary in how they handle offenders, but in the 21st Judicial District, these offenders will be prosecuted under the sexual exploitation of a minor statute.
Currently, Tennessee is one of a handful of states that does not have a juvenile sex offender registry. Other states are tougher. For example, in the case of Florida 18-year-old Phillip Alpert, he forwarded nude pictures of his ex-girlfriend to other teens and as a result had to register as a sex offender for 25 years.
Moore says she has not seen any sexting cases come through her office yet. According to Warner, the Franklin Police Department’s Internet Crimes Against Children and Special Victims Unit has investigated some sexting cases in the past.
Representatives from Rutherford County Schools and the Metro Nashville Public Schools say they are not aware of any sexting instances in their school districts.
The Franklin Police Department has been active in going out to the middle and high schools in their area and holding seminars to teach kids about sexting dangers. This initiative is to protect teens and prevent future sexting occurrences in Middle Tennessee.
Warner argues that sexting is more than just teenage sexual exploration. It has other dangerous consequences.
“If two teenagers are taking pictures or allowing pictures to be taken of themselves … these are so easily sent or forwarded or gotten in the wrong hands by people who are child rapists, people that are convicted sex offenders,” says Warner.”It has a very large market and is very sought after material.”
According to the survey mentioned above, a majority of teens (75 percent) know that sexting can have serious negative consequences, but some engage in the behavior regardless.
Professionals and parents cite that this has something to do with teens’ brain development. Studies have shown that the brain doesn’t fully mature until about age 25. As a result, teens may not always think about the consequences of their actions.
What to Do
“Teens act in the moment. They don’t have a breaking mechanism. They don’t think long term,” says Vogt.”As parents, we have to help them begin to think like that. Part of it is ‘OK, they don’t have that maturity,’ but that’s not an excuse to allow them to get away from that behavior. Parents are supposed to step in and help our kids know better.”
Vogt says parents should stand up, take responsibility and be the first ones to hand out the consequences.
“If the child isn’t handling the cell phone responsibly, take it back. Having a cell phone is not a right, it’s a privilege,” says Vogt.
In this new age of parenting, moms and dads can’t assume that it won’t happen to their children.
“You cannot be naive and assume that because your kid is a good kid, a straight-A student, an athlete, whatever … that they are safe from any of this, because even the best kids make bad choices sometimes,” argues Faill.”You have to be proactive.”
Parents should have open conversations with their kids, no matter how uncomfortable. Speak to them about appropriate cell phone use, what your expectations are and why they exist. This is not a conversation you should have once, but an ongoing discussion. Bring it up when they least expect it, so they won’t have time to prepare.
“Don’t be afraid to pick up their cell phones and look and see what pictures are on it. Check their messages. If they’re on the phone, ask them who they’re talking to. Go to their address books and see whose names are in there,” says Faill.
In her household, she reserves the right to check her children’s computers and cell phones and do spot checks.
“Some may think it’s an invasion of privacy. I think any parent who believes that is naive and headed for trouble,” says Faill.”It’s not about invading privacy. It’s protecting the integrity of our family.”
Warner says there’s nothing wrong with parents being nosy.
“They’re your kids. It’s your job to be in their business and in their lives,” says Warner.”Although some kids may have a rebellious attitude toward that, I’d rather have a child rebel a little bit … than have pictures of them floating around in cyber space.”
For parents who are concerned and want to be more proactive, check out My Mobile Watchdog (mymobilewatchdog.com) – a protective device that safeguards your child’s cell phone and alerts you if he receives an unapproved email, text message or phone call. It can also send you complete text messages (both sent and received) and pictures they receive, along with corresponding phone numbers.
Doan Phuong Nguyen is a writer based in Middle Tennessee.