The lowdown on sexting
Everything you wanted to know about this teen smut trend but were afraid to ask.
By Phuong Ly
Thirteen-year-old Hope Witsell liked a boy and wanted him to notice her. So she sent a topless photo of herself to his cell phone — and received more attention than she'd bargained for. After another girl grabbed hold of the phone, the X-rated image circulated throughout Hope’s Florida middle school.
Sexting may seem like old-fashioned flirting in a high-tech guise, but as Hope discovered, it can produce results far more dangerous than batting eyelashes ever did. First, Hope’s photo made her the target of bullying. Later, when the administration got involved, the photo became grounds for her suspension. Last September she hanged herself.
Hope was the second teen to commit suicide after a sexting incident. Jessica Logan, 18, of Cincinnati, Ohio, killed herself in July 2008 after her boyfriend forwarded explicit photos of her following the couple’s break-up.
Children trafficking children
Sexting has also fueled a new source of juvenile crime. Dozens of teens around the country have been arrested for sexting and charged with possession of child porn, a felony. After being convicted, one Orlando high school senior had to register as a sex offender, putting him on the same list as child molesters and rapists.
The images may look naughty — or even obscene — but experts say most of the teens sending them aren’t. According to Russell Sabella, a professor of school counseling who specializes in tech issues at Florida Gulf Coast University, kids who engage in sexting are simply naïve about the power of technology.
“They don’t realize how easy it is to lose control of information and data when it leaves their gadget,” he says. “It [starts out as] a social thing, but it can quickly come back to hurt them.”
According to a Fall 2008 study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, as many as one in five teens had sent sexually suggestive photos of themselves to someone else and a third had received such images. Numbers from more recent surveys, however, do not show a clear trend. A 2009 study from the Pew Research Center suggests that the numbers of teens who are sexting might be lower -- but that older kids are far more involved. Pew’s results showed just 4 percent of the 800 teens polled said they had sent explicit images, and 15 percent had received them. The Pew survey also found that 17-year-olds were twice as likely to engage in sexting, compared to 12-year-olds. Most recently, a fall 2011 survey conducted by MTV and the Associated Press found that 13 percent of teens surveyed sent naked pictures of themselves and 21 percent received such photos, a three-percent increase in both categories from their Fall 2009 survey.
But perhaps there’s a silver lining to this troubling trend: teens are increasingly aware of issues around sexting. In MTV/AP’s latest survey, 71 percent of teens surveyed said sharing naked pictures on the Internet or via cell phones was a serious problem.