Despite the growth in internet safety education over the past year, one alarming trend continued to get worse: “sexting,” or the act of sending explicit photos or text messages via cell phones or the web.
More than a quarter of young people ages 14 to 24 say they’ve been involved in some form of sexting, according to an Associated Press-MTV poll released in early December. A separate poll from the Pew Internet & American Life Project reported that 15 percent of teens ages 12 to 17 have received “sext” messages.
While the exchange of nude images mostly takes place among romantic partners or potential partners of the same age, these images often are forwarded to non-partners or people in different age groups–with sometimes tragic results.
Two teens committed suicide this year as a result of the bullying they endured when explicit photos they took of themselves ended up in the wrong hands. In March, 18-year-old Jessica Logan killed herself in the face of a barrage of taunts when an ex-boyfriend forwarded explicit photos of her following their breakup. And in September, 13-year-old Hope Witsell hanged herself in her bedroom. The 13-year-old Florida girl had sent a topless photo of herself to a boy in the hope of gaining his attention. Instead, she got the attention of her school, as well as the nearby high school.
The parents of Jessica Logan have sued her former school, saying if officials had taken more aggressive action against the bullying, Jessica would still be alive today.
Besides the emotional trauma it can lead to, sexting can have serious legal ramifications as well. Some prosecutors have begun charging teens who send and receive such images with child pornography and other felonies, sparking an intense discussion about whether that’s really the best way to handle it.
Some state lawmakers don’t think so, and in the past year they’ve proposed or passed laws to bar child pornography charges that result in lifetime listings on states’ internet sex-offender registries.
Appropriate punishment aside, everyone agrees that the best solution is educating teens about the risks of sexting.
Marisa Nightingale, senior advisor with the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, said many teens who send sexting messages do so as a joke. “But you’re basically relinquishing control of how people see you in this very sensitive area, which is your sexuality,” she said.