In 2008 The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy surveyed teens ages 13 to 19 and found 20 percent electronically sent or posted online, nude or semi-nude pictures or video of themselves.
Even more alarming are the harmful side effects sexting can have on teens' lives.
In 2009, Wyoming County DA George Skumanick Jr. threatened to charge two 13-year-olds with child pornography after the girls posed in their bra while another girl took their picture during a slumber party. The images somehow ended up on classmates' cell phones. Skumanick agreed to drop the charges if the two girls attended a five-week after school program followed by probation.
Unaware of the consequences of sending sexually explicit pictures, teens soon learn how quickly images can go viral. Provocative images take on a life of their own, spiraling into embarrassment, exploitation, bullying, potential prosecution for the sender, and in some cases -- suicide.
When 18-year-old Jessica Logan transmitted naked pictures of herself to her boyfriend, she had no idea the pain that would follow. Following their break-up, Jessica's ex sent the pictures to a few girls at their high school who bullied and harassed her. Gradually sinking deeper into despair, one night after attending a funeral of a friend who committed suicide, Jessica hung herself in her bedroom closet.
Jennie Withers, author of 'Hey, Back Off'! Tips for Stopping Teen Harassment, feels sexting demands education and in some cases, prosecution. "In order for aggressive people to stop sexting or whatever bullying behavior they are participating in, they have to experience consequences." she says. "There are many states however, where the laws for cyber bullying are still trying to catch up, so the consequence does not always fit the crime or the age of the criminal."
Withers also feels education is crucial. "Teens and parents need to be educated on what harassment is, what laws are out there to protect or prosecute, what it means to be an aggressive, passive or assertive personality and how to deal with harassment of all types (bullying, sexual harassment, stalking, hazing and cyber bullying). Sexting is sexual harassment as well as cyber bullying."
Randi Levin spent years working with at-risk girls and boys and feels that in the long run, locking kids up for sexting has a negative effect. "However, restitution with donated and community service (cleaning) conducted at rape and domestic abuse shelters may teach them a lesson for life on respecting themselves and others," says Levin. "Locking them up costs money and time, and the therapy is minimal at best -- besides, case workers do not have the time to educate these kids properly. However, when they see and talk to victims, many change their minds about sexting."
Lisa Henderson, president of Teens Talk Truth emphasizes starting young. "Obviously, education is a great idea, but I like the consequence the (Wyoming) girls had of having the charges dropped after completing the course. Early intervention in any process is the key to success. Better to scare the heck out of them at 13 than to have them prosecuted at 18."
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