Teens Fail to Grasp Sexting's Danger
Kim Garnet, 15, never thought anything bad would come of sending nude photos of herself via her cell phone to her boyfriend, Steve Walker. But when she went to send the photos she accidentally sent them to the wrong boy. Walker got his hands on the photos and, thinking Garnet had done it on purpose, retaliated by sending the nude photos to everyone in the school. Walker was then arrested for producing and distributing child pornography. He was sentenced to a year in a juvenile facility for sex offenders.
The good news: the above scenario isn't actually real--it's the plotline from a recent episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit titled "Crush." The bad news: this same situation is happening to countless teenagers both locally and nationally. With the newest developments in technology, many teens are finding new ways to express their budding sexuality without understanding the possible repercussions.
Many schools in the greater Waterville area have been dealing with recent concerns over the growing popularity of "sexting," a newly-coined term referring to sending sexually explicit text messages or photos via cell phone.
"Sexting essentially is very popular among teens," Tracey Frost, school resource officer at Messalonskee High School in Oakland, said in a recent Morning Sentinel interview. "They like to take pictures of themselves with cell phones when they are topless or completely nude. They will send those images to other kids--like a dating business card."
But what most students fail to understand is that these photos rarely ever stay private. Recently, Messalonskee High School has had to deal with several cases of sexting abuse.
"A typical case for us is a girl or boy approaches the school resource officer and says, 'I broke up with so-and-so, but he's got a lot of pictures of me. Can you get rid of them?'" Frost said. "The next thing you know, the pictures are on the Internet and from there you can't get them back. We've had cases where young girls are contacted by 30-year old men trying to solicit them for sex."
According to Frost, one girl broke up with her boyfriend who then posted nude photos of her on YouTube.
Dede Bartlett, a recognized authority on domestic violence according to her website, spoke at Thomas College on March 4 about these issues.
"The problem goes by many names: textual harassment, sexting, digital abuse, cyber-stalking," Bartlett said. "What they all mean is that advances in technology can lead to dangerous behaviors for many teens, and parents and kids need help in dealing with these situations."
Karen O'Donnell, Fairfield police officer and school resource officer at Lawrence Middle and High Schools, often gets involved with sexting and harassment issues. She recently became involved in an incident of this nature. After a girl broke up with her boyfriend, he sent the nude photos he had of her to every one of the contacts on his cell phone. Since the boy even had the girl's mother's cell phone number in his contacts, the incident caused additional distress among parents.
The rise in sexting is by no means a local issue. More and more teens and young adults are partaking in this new trend, putting themselves at risk for lasting consequences for child pornography charges and rejections from colleges and job opportunities if the pictures surface.
In a recent survey by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and CosmoGirl.com, one in five teens admit to sending out nude or semi-nude digital photos of themselves. Sixty-nine percent of those who admitted to sexting said they send these photos to their boyfriend or girlfriend, while 30 percent said that they send them to someone they want to hook up with or date.
What most high schools fail to acknowledge, however, is that under federal and state child pornography laws, it is illegal to create, possess or distribute explicit images of a minor. While the laws were designed to protect children from adult abuse, minors who create and distribute these images are not exempt from the law.
The New York Times published a story last year about a 16-year old girl who faced charges for production of child pornography. She took several pictures of herself and sent them to a boy she liked, who then sent the photos to many of his friends. Under the current sentencing guidelines, she could receive a life sentence in federal prison, and even if she does manage to get out, she would have to register as a sex offender.
Some lawmakers are considering revising the laws to address the rise in sexting between teenagers. The Vermont Legislature has been considering a bill that would legalize sexting between teenagers. While the consensual exchange of graphic images between two people aged 13 to 18 would become legal, passing along such images to others without permission would remain a crime.
The Illinois House of Representatives also passed a "sexting" ban on March 11 that would impose civil, not criminal, penalties on the practice. Under these new laws, minors who are found guilty of sexting by computers or cell phones could face in-house counseling and/or community service.
However, teenagers are by no means the only people partaking in the sexting trend. An incident earlier this month involving a New Hampshire high school teacher has shown that adults are just as likely to engage in this dangerous behavior. Melinda Dennehy, an English teacher at Londonderry High School, sent four nude photos of herself to a 15-year old male student, along with texts detailing sexual acts that she wanted to perform with him. Dennehy was charged with a felony count of indecent exposure and has been released on bail.
The fact that many celebrities also engage in such behavior has brought much media attention to the issue. Vanessa Hudgens' infamous nude photos that circulated the Internet in 2007 became the topic of every late night talk show and celebrity gossip magazine, and provocative photos of Snooki from MTV's Jersey Shore have recently appeared online as well. Tiger Woods' sex scandal has also brought sexting into the limelight with the public release of the sexually explicit text messages that he sent to multiple women.
And sexting extends beyond celebrity gossip and high school drama. Sexting has become a part of today's popular culture, infiltrating television show plots like the one from Law & Order: SVU mentioned earlier and many music videos.
Ludacris recently released a new song, "Sexting," in which he laments having an addiction to sex and being caught when his girlfriend reads through his sext messages on his cell phone.
The popular website CollegeHumor.com also released a song about sexting, "Let's Talk About Sext," a parody of Salt-N-Pepa's song "Let's Talk About Sex." While the song does not condemn the practice of sexting, it does give tips on "safe sexting," such as cropping or blurring out your face so that viewers cannot tell it's your body.
While sexting may be popular in today's society, the local schools are trying everything they can to combat its prevalence among minors. Students at Messalonskee are not allowed to use their cell phones during class, while Lawrence High School students are required to turn off their cell phones between 7:20 a.m. and 1:45 p.m.
"At the high school, students just don't think [sexting] is wrong," O'Donnell said. "They don't realize the damage that can be done, especially when it comes to scholarships and placement in classes."
While no local students have been charged with creating and distributing child pornography, the possibility alone should deter most students, Frost said.
"If a kid is convicted of this, they're on the sex offender registry for the rest of their lives."