It takes a matter of seconds to pose, point, click and send. But teens are finding out the hard way that the consequences of sending sexually explicit photos via cell phones can be painful and permanent.
Experts say “sexting” is the latest collision between teenage sexuality and rapidly increasing communication technology, and that parents and teens should take it more seriously.
“What was kissing in the back of a bus 30 years ago is now sexting and distributing,” said Dr. Barbara Greene, a psychologist at South Shore Hospital. “It does not click that what they’re doing is destructive, let alone illegal.”
Greene said several recent cases show that teens fail to grasp the permanence of snapping a racy photo and sending it to a friend. They don’t consider the fact that the image may be shared with others.
“As technology races at an ever faster pace, the exposure increases,” Greene said. “The degree of violation is amplified.”
The term sexting made national headlines last month when Pennsylvania prosecutors sought child pornography charges against three teenage girls who sent text message photos of themselves wearing bras.
A federal judge blocked criminal charges against the teens, but the case was followed by other similar local and national incidents.
A study from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy reported in December that 20 percent of 653 teenagers polled had posted nude or seminude pictures of themselves at least once via computer or cell phone.
While concerns about teen sexuality are nothing new, experts say cell phone technology has changed the game. “Teenagers have always been highly-charged sexual beings,” said Mark Dunay, a clinical social worker at Harbor Counseling Associates in Plymouth. “But the whole notion of propriety and what’s OK and what isn’t has been blurred.”
“When you combine that with the natural inclination to forward and share information, you’re in trouble,” he said.
Critics of the decision to charge students in such cases have called the response an overreaction, citing laws that would force those convicted to register as sex offenders, sometimes for distributing pictures of themselves.
But Laurie Myers, president of Community Voices, a group aimed at educating the public and tightening sex offender laws, said it’s up to parents to explain that sexting is illegal.
“I doubt very much that any of the district attorneys in Massachusetts, unless there were serious issues, would try to pin those charges on a kid,” she said. “Someone needs to sit down and say, ‘Look, this is what could happen to you, and it will be out of our control.’”
Parents could curb some cases simply by monitoring cell phone use, Greene said.
“We’re giving them the cell phones when they still don’t have an understanding of the criminal and the social and emotional impact,” she said. “It’s like giving them the tools without the instruction book.”
Reprinted with permission of Kaitlin Keane from the Patriot Ledger
Patriot Ledger writer Kaitlin Keane may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.