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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.”

Sexting statistics

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.

A former reporter for the Washington Post, Phuong Ly has written extensively about education as well as immigration and crime.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

05/10/2012:
"wow i am doing a project for english on sexting and this is amazing "
10/7/2011:
"This is some advice that I came across when I was worried about my child sexting: Don’t wait for an incident to happen to your child or your child’s friend before you talk about the consequences of sexting. Sure, talking about sex or dating with teens can be uncomfortable, but it’s better to have the talk before something happens. Remind your kids that once an image is sent, it can never be retrieved -- and they will lose control of it. Ask teens how they would feel if their teachers, parents, or the entire school saw the picture, because that happens all the time. Talk about pressures to send revealing photos. Let teens know that you understand how they can be pushed or dared into sending something. Tell them that no matter how big the social pressure is, the potential social humiliation can be hundreds of times worse. Teach your children that the buck stops with them. If someone sends them a photo, they should delete it immediately. It’s better to be part of the solution than the problem. Besides, if they do send it on, they're distributing pornography -- and that’s against the law. If you are concerned about your child sexting, I used an app called Mobileminder to keep an eye on what my son was doing on his cell phone. With Mobileminder I was able to check his text messages, pictures, call logs, etc. from my computer. If you are concerned about your own child I would highly recommend using Mobileminder. The website is www.mobileminder.com "
08/24/2011:
"This is a great article as you can see all of the great opinions, ideas and statistical data. All of the comments raise good points and have merit in my opinion. The issue of "sexting" is not due to one issue or reason, it is a combination of simple reasons and more complicated ones. When I break down all of these factors and reasons for "sexting", it all seems to come down to, and this by no means is the only explanation, moral and value judgments which are a great source of identity struggles for a teen or tween, but also the need or desire to fit in or belong. I have followed Brenee Brown PhD who is a national researcher on shame issues and she brings up a valid point in her data of fitting in versus belonging. I may be wrong, but I interpret these ideas that "fitting in" deals with the actions a young person takes in trying to ultimately "belong". A sense or feeling of belonging is crucial to a young persons self worth and validation. Talk to your kids, be parents! to your kids, not their best friend. When I hear the excuses that it is not right to look through your kids cell phones or computers I can't help be concerned about that, as well as the comments that it is in some way "technologies" or the "cell phones" fault. I am my childrens parent and as a parent it is not only my right to know what they are doing, it is my duty. You may disagree, and I welcome those disagreements because it brings out ideas and open discussions. Thank you for all of your comments and this discussion. "
08/22/2011:
"Doesn't seem like too much of a problem it is a problem, but the girl shouldn't have hung herself. Its like if every person who had a problem hung themself. "
08/19/2011:
"I don't know why this article buries the obvious thing to do in a paragraph on page two. This article should be two sentences long: "Every cell phone company offers the ability to disable picture messaging. Call them right now." End of story. "
08/17/2011:
"Another option is do not give children this age cell phones ... just 10 years ago children this age did not have cell phones and it seems they all got along in life pretty well. We all make excuses for reasons why children need cell phones but the fact of the matter is just a decade ago cell phones (and smart phones) were not as prevalent and our society got along just fine ... and likely better! "
08/9/2011:
"This problem started long before texting! Immorality is increasingly becoming more perverse. Like it or not the truth is that all of America’s woes started in June of 1963 when pray and the bible was banished from the public schools. At this very point is when the hoards of hell came pouring into this blessed nation. Before this time was when most Americans were sound minded and moral. You take God out of the equation and you get a vacuum that is filled up with evil. Therefore, sound minded people became less and less. America's present generation now has become warped minded (thanks to the distorted teachings and ideologies of the education system) which is instrumental in producing parents who want to be friends to their children rather than parents. God help us in Jesus name! "
08/8/2011:
"Unfortunately, cell phones are a necessity in California. One child travels via train 33 miles each way to a charter school, alone, in the land of earthquakes. Having a cell phone has been critical to keeping him safe. Other child has had cell phone since 8 years old, travels 14 miles in opposite direction via school bus, and has needed the phone to alert us to emergencies (bullying, sickness that teacher wouldn't address and required medical care, etc.). Ipods, even Nintendo DS, have internet access. Even "good kids" can get sucked in... It is all about talking to your kids about everything. If your kids talk endlessly about TV shows, friends, and toys, they are more likely to talk about "important" things, so we talk about EVERYTHING. Hopefully, (and so far), the kids have stayed out of trouble. "
08/8/2011:
"INSANITY! This is not about cell phones or other technology. It's about a lack of morals and good judgement. When I was 13 years old I wouldn't have dreamed of baring any private body parts to get a boy interested. It should not be happening at all and you can't blame it on the cell phones and texting. It's pure and simple a lack of parenting. Kids who are doing this are so far down the wrong track. Turn off the crappy video games, TV shows, and foul music on the radio. Spend time with your kids and get your head out of the sand. Stop blaming technology. And if you think your kids are too immature to understand, developmentally, the results of their actions, DON'T GIVE THEM A CELL PHONE. NO 13 YEAR OLD NEEDS A CELL PHONE! "
08/8/2011:
"Sexting - and even using the cell phone in class -is directly proportional to the discipline and interest level of the teacher. Since 99% of this goes on while the student is "sitting in a (boring) class" then if the teacher is clear and consistent with his/her rules, and has a clear and challenging curriculum, then the phone won't even be looked at during class. "
08/8/2011:
"I agree with the tenage, it is because of the technology. I call it technology trap. "
08/8/2011:
"I suspect this post will annoy those that are certain about the black and white rules of society and the clear concept of resposibility, but here it is anyway: Broadly speaking, kids ages 16-24 are not developmentally equipped to understand or deeply consider the consequences of their actions (drinking and driving, having sex, fighting, sexting, etc.). Simply, that is a fact-do the research. For the most part, while they can learn not to do something dumb twice, they lack the capacity to generalize one mistake to another unrelated action that turns out also to be a mistake. It is the way it is; our job as adults is to try to help kids make healthy choices, pay close attention so as to minimize the chance of your child making a major life altering decision, but understand when they do make a mistake---turning them into criminals is, in a word, criminal! "
08/8/2011:
"If you gave a child a gun, you could hardly claim surprise when a bullet was fired. The solution for sexting - and a whole host of other cell phone-related maladies is simple: children do not need cell phones. Spend that extra $40-60 per month of your easily-disposable income on something much more worthwhile. "
08/8/2011:
"Good article, but I take exception that, "You can also justify doing spot checks of your teens' phones if you pay for all or part of the bills." Wrong ... I can justify doing anything with my teen's phone because I am his/her parent. I don't need to pay a nickel of the bill to exercise my parental rights/jurisdiction. Ever. You should also mention the text monitoring services that are available for relatively low cost. The only drawback is that I've discovered they only operate on the Android platform, so unless your child has a non-Apple smartphone, you're out of luck. "
08/8/2011:
"I have never added texting to my daughter's cell phone privaledge for msny reasons,the least of which was the waste of time while failing to learn verbal communication skills. Young people are missing the most important aspect of communication; the fact that nearly 70% of all human communication is comprised of non verbal, or body body language. While they stare at yet another screen, they are not interacting one on one and forging real relationships. As a Speech Pathologist I see that young people do not spend enough time creating lasting memories having simple fun. There can be no other explenation for the rampant misuse of this mode of communication. As far as I am concerned this is the lowest form of human interaction being an abbreviated format which can easily be misunderstood. One must always think of anything the young person can conceive of doing with the electronics of today as potentially dangerous because most children will find a way to misuse almost anything f! or the sake of social acceptance. Think about it; how much time do your children actually spend interacting with other young people in order to make benign mistakes which do not have such far reaching consequences. Who says children have to be empowered with unlimited internet usage, texting, and television; all of which can serve to focus and build on their already pervasive teenage anks? When did all of these devises become an entitlement and why are these children not developing much needed social skills in a more positive venue with adult supervision. Think about how we were raised. Did our parents run around as much and allow technology to be their children's teachers. Were our parents not aware of where we were going and with whom? When did parents give up the job of parenting and allow other children, television and the internet do it for them. I am not trying to sound holier than thou, I have made many mistakes as any human will do, yet we do not have television, t! he internet use is done through my computer and monitored and ! I do not have texting and neither does my daughter. My goodness these youngsters cannot write a decent sentence with all the abreiviated text. They learn from the media that sex sells and attracts and they think it is all an accepted way to conduct ones life. When one father heard my daughter "complaining" about her limited access to technology, (something she secretly is glad I do but loves to complain to her friends as all young people do), he actually threatened to report me to protective services for denying her access to technology. Does he understand that we talk more, read together more, play board games and actually interact together more, and I ask you, how is that a bad thing? "
08/8/2011:
"Gee, a school district decided to ban "sexting?" Like this is a controversial decision? "
03/17/2010:
"Hmm, yes, about 22% of the 653 teens surveyed said that technology made them feel more forward and aggressive... But then 78% did not feel that way. I agree with the person who said it's a parenting problem. These kids who are doing this have no moral compass and are quite willing to blame it on the technology. Pretty sad! "
03/17/2010:
"I go through cell phones, back packs and purses. I pay the bill and I'm responsible for what goes in and out of my house. I'm very open about sex and not stupid to the fact it’s going to happen. I also understand drugs can also happen to very good kids. I was a teenager not that long ago. However, the one thing my kids won’t be able to say is I didn’t care enough to check. I grew up with friends who’s parents didn’t want to INVADE PRIVACY and when talking to those friends now. WE all say the same thing my parent should have looked a little closer and maybe that would not have happened. Now with that being said as a parent you can’t stop everything. Kid’s r going to have sex and maybe drugs but talking to your kids and educating them on the subject will help them to make their own decisions. Not to mention when they learn things such information about STDs it does come up in their conversations with their friends. The biggest thing about sexting is that one pict! ure can turn an Adult's world upside down when used with the wrong intentions. Teenagers are not yet ready to deal with that kind of attention no matter how cocky or secure they may act."
03/17/2010:
"To the person who thought that a school official shouldn't treat sexting as a police matter: Sexually explict photographs are considered to be pornography. Child porn (i.e., involving a minor) is illegal. There have been a couple of incidents involving sexting in our community and surrounding area and the police DO get involved, as well as the county District Attorney, because child porn is illegal. The school principal or other administrators don't have much choice but to cooperate. By the time a kid is in middle school or high school they should have more sense to know that this is wrong. When children are constantly exposed to poor role models on TV and radio, and more trash on video games, and get no moral direction from parents, I guess we can expect that things will go awry. Parents need to take responsiblity for their children. It's a sad state of affairs that this country is in."
03/17/2010:
"How to prevent sexting? Teach your kids what's right and wrong from a young age, and then they won't abuse the technology they have at their disposal! The mobile phones and digital technology are not the source of the problem here."
03/15/2010:
"Going through your child's cellphone is not the answer. I mean hi, there is this thing called delete! Talk to your child about it. Invading their privacy is not the answer. And as someone said earlier, the real problem is our nations taboo on nudity. It is the human body! It is natural and beautiful! "
03/15/2010:
"This is a very interesting article, as are the comments that have posted to date. The article said there was a survey where teens were asked about this, and the response was that the cell phone made them feel forward and aggressive. That would mean that this technology, be it cells phones, iPods, even cameras, is partially responsible. Without these items, the kids wouldn't feel forward or aggressive. Someone mentioned that before this technology, middle school student wouldn't have shown parts of their body, face to face... I disagree. When I was in school, this was done, not just the girls, but the boys too. Not often, with the chance of someone else seeing that it was not intended for, another student, faculty, but it was done. I think that too much emphasis is put on our own bodies, we cover them up and hide ourselves when our children come in unexpectedly. Talking about our nudity, sex or other things is normally pushed away by parents who are embarrassed, because their parents didn't discuss these things with their children. What is so wrong about the human body? We were all born without clothing. Adam and Eve wore no clothing, until the whole fruit incident. But really, if children are exposed to peoples bodies, and could talk about things that they don't understand or are concerned about... there wouldn't be such a 'mystery', about sex or our bodies. Make it less of a mystery, and you'll find that later in life when the kids reach 'the age', whatever age that is when kids start noticing the opposite sex, the mystery is taken out, and they don't have that question in the back of their mind, the mystery is gone. I know that the majority of the world will not agree with what I've said, and that's entirely okay, but if you would really think about it, and I mean really took your time to think about it, you might agree. I have always been open and very honest about sex, nudity, what happens at what age, the consequences of acting upon feelings with my children (4 girls). They are very well balanced teenagers all four of them. Don't get hung up on who likes who, who you like, if he's hurt you. These things can be extremely distractive, and the majority of the people you meet in school will not matter when you get older. You will make new friends that fit you better when you are older because you know who you are then, rather than the confusion of who are you, who are you going to be when you're a teenager."
03/11/2010:
"Well... Sorry to say this but I believe that sexting is going a bit too far... and kids shouldn't be pressured to do so in any relationship. But is it really that big a deal? Besides, maybe we wouldn't be so tempted to send and receive pictures like that if parents weren't so close minded about talking. Children who are curious about sex should have a right to ask their parents about it and get an honest answer, not awkward silence."
03/4/2010:
"I also want to add, that calling the sexual exploration by children 'smut' and 'sordid' is sick by itself. These are children who need to learn how to have healthy relationships. Calling them smutty won't help "
03/3/2010:
"I would never cooperate with any school official who would treat this as a police matter. We should be concerned about our child's emotional and sexual development without having to be worried that the behavior would be criminalized. "
03/1/2010:
"Very good article. This info needs to be at the front line of educating kids about what is out there that can harm them, as well as family. In my opinion, the teaching should be done as boldly and forthright as possible. Children are a precious gift from God that are to be cherished and protected from the vile preditors that are so ramport in our society today."
02/22/2010:
"I know a lot of kids who do that kind of thing, I am not necessarily friends with them though and I don't own a cell phone. Personally I don't mind cell phones or ipods as long as they stay in the lockers all during schools. I find the issue is in how much of a taboo nudity and sex is in our society, really if it weren't a almost illegal topic teenagers would not use it as another way to rebel. Now I do not support porn in any way because really use your common sense it is not that hard, if you don't have any that is a different matter entirely, and I wish there were a way I could help."
02/17/2010:
"Yes, most certainly the availability and proliferation of cell phones and other technology have brought this problem to a new level. But to put the blame on the cell phone or the technology itself is wrong. What happened parents teaching kids plain, old moral behavior? Back when you were in middle school would you have dreamed of baring any part of your private anatomy and showing it to a member of the opposite sex (or anyone)? Or sending a picture to another kid? I'm quite sure that most people out there say no, so why are kids so easily tempted to do that these days? Perhaps it's a lack of moral education! Let's turn off the TVs with the smutty talk and constant innuendo; It's inappropriate for children. Ditto for the video games. Let's stop dressing our pre-teens (and younger kids) like they were adults. Don't be in such a rush for your kids to grow up! And most of all - talk to your kids about what's appropriate and what's not - this doesn't start when the kids! get into middle school, it's a part of parenting that begins when they are toddlers. Get a clue out there, it's not the cell phones that are causing this problem!"
02/16/2010:
"This is another timely article. I have interrupted sexting pics as well as explicit messages and called those that sent it and told them I would be contacting their parents and the school if they didnt want to give me their parents info. I used it as an opportunity not to just scare them straight but opened a dialougue with each kid and everyone of them are not able to talk to their parents about sex. I believe that cell phones,ipods should be banned from school totally. We had no phones or ipods and if there was an emergency out parents were contacted via the school phone. Our kids would be able to really focus minus those technical distractions."
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