Last May, our small town was roiled by what, for us, was a scandal of major proportions. A new and attractive high school teacher checked her cellphone to find a message from a student. The student was known as a practical joker, but that did not prepare the teacher for what she found: a sexually explicit photo of the student accompanied by a text message that seemed menacing.
The teacher was so frightened that she approached the local police and requested a restraining order against the student. Once that process was put in motion, the high school was forced to act in accordance with legal guidelines. The student, popular and accomplished, was suspended from school and prohibited from attending graduation, planned for the following week. In addition, the college he was planning to attend was notified, as well as the scholarship committees that had awarded him scholarships. Those scholarships were promptly withdrawn.
The student had a defense; he couldn’t have done it because he had lost his cellphone several weeks before during a trip down South. It contained nude photos he had taken of himself to send to his girlfriend. Whoever had retrieved the phone had sent those photos to his contact list. Why had the teacher’s number been in the student’s phone? He had an answer for that, too. He was the president of a school club and the teacher was the faculty advisor. She had given him the phone number to discuss club matters.
Many parents found the explanation absurd. “Who keeps nude photos of themselves on their cellphones? I asked my college age children. “Lots of people,” was the response. That’s how I learned about sexting.
According to the study, Sex and Tech, released today by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy in collaboration with Cosmogirl.com:
One in five teen girls (22%)—and 11% of teen girls ages 13-16 years old—say they have electronically sent, or posted online, nude or semi-nude images of themselves…
Teen girls are not the only ones sharing sexually explicit content. Almost one in five teen boys (18%) say they have sent or posted nude/semi nude images of themselves. One-third (33%) of young adults—36% of women and 31% of men ages 20-26—say they have sent or posted such images.
Teens are notorious for their poor judgment, and one reason for this deficiency is the inability to perceive both short and long term consequences of their actions. According to a local Virginia ABC affiliate:
The risque game has very real consequences. “The phones these days are like very good so they can just like send it to the Internet and they can put it on MySpace and other people can save it so it’s like all over the place,” said a seventh grader…
The kids said very often it starts as a girlfriend sending a boyfriend a picture, but then they break up, he shows a friend and it quickly gets forwarded around…
Who could have seen that coming?
The long term consequences can be even more severe. According to an article in today’s Boston Globe:
Two cheerleaders near Seattle were suspended recently when nude pictures of them spread through their school via cellphone, and last week a Wisconsin teenager was charged with exposing a child to harmful material for showing classmates nude cellphone pictures of his former girlfriend and other girls. At least 10 students were suspended from a Michigan high school in October for spreading a nude cellphone picture of a classmate.
In Salem, principal William Hagen did not discipline any students involved, but warned that future infractions would carry sanctions…
“We educated the kids about the long-term and short-term consequences,” Hagen said. “Once they’re posted electronically, they’re out there forever. They’re available to colleges and universities. They’re available to employers…”
In addition, it’s a felony for children under 18 to receive sexually explicit pictures on their phone, and taking sexually pictures and sending them could lead to charges of pornography production and distribution.
The Sex and Tech campaign has published a list of “5 things to think about before pressing ‘send’.”
1. Don’t assume anything you send or post is going to remain private.
2. There is no changing your mind in cyberspace— anything you send or post will never truly go away.
3. Don’t give in to the pressure to do something that makes you uncomfortable, even in cyberspace.
4. Consider the recipient’s reaction.
5. Nothing is truly anonymous.
The resolution of our high school’s sexting incident was sobering. The boy’s family hired a lawyer who obtained the phone company records for the day in question. The call had originated down South several weeks after his phone had been reported stolen, just as the boy had claimed. The principal wrote a public letter of apology to the student; his college was informed and his scholarships were reinstated.
Despite the apparently successful conclusion, there has been a legacy of bitterness. Friends of the student lashed out at the teacher, claiming that she overreacted. The teacher felt that the school had not provided her with support during her ordeal. The student was left angry, embarrassed and in possession of large legal bills.
Sexting exists at the intersection of poor teen judgment, sex and technology. These days, that’s a dangerous place to be.