Sexting uncovered: The naked truth

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Julia Waldow, print editor-in-chief

A teenager who wants to spice up his or her relationship decides to bare it all, literally, for his or her partner’s affection. He or she types out a racy message, snaps a provocative nude photo and sends his or her sext electronically to someone he or she likes. However, as technology advances and the boundaries of privacy blur, the sext is not solely limited to the teenager’s partner, and the sender might find his or her image or words forwarded to anyone or featured on Facebook, Twitter or other social networking sites.

“People send photos to people they like, and they think that by sending that type of photo, that person may like them more,” Intervention Counselor Ali Norman-Franks said. “People trust the person they’re sending a message to. They think, ‘Oh, my boyfriend or girlfriend won’t share this with anyone else.’ People don’t believe the consequences [of sexting] or think that these kinds of consequences couldn’t happen to them.”

Sexting, or the practice of sending sexually explicit messages and/or photos electronically, has become a trend among today’s youth. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, 22 percent of girls and 18 percent of boys have, at one time, sent naked or semi-nude images of themselves or posted pictures online, and one sixth of teens between 12 and 17-years-old who own phones have received nude or partially-nude pictures from someone they know.

“I think that the term ‘sexting’ didn’t even exist until technology advanced,” Norman-Franks, who helped present a school-wide assembly on the dangers of sexting five years ago, said. “Prior to social media, if people wanted to share a picture of themselves naked, they’d have to actually give a photo to someone.”

A recent study spearheaded by Eric Rice, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California, of 1,800 Los Angeles high school students revealed that teens who sext are seven times more likely to engage in intercourse, according to The Los Angeles Times. Of those polled, 15 percent have sexted, and 54 percent know someone who has sent a provocative message or image.

“I don’t think people should give into peer pressure, but if you’re good friends with someone who sexts, you’ll probably…start doing it if you have someone to sext with,” junior Paula Alexe said.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), “sexting can result in tragic circumstances.” Two 15-year-olds were sentenced to a juvenile facility for sending nude pictures on their phones, a 15-year-old boy received one year of probation for forwarding a picture of his genitals to a 13-year-old girl’s phone and an 18-year-old high school graduate committed suicide after a nude photo she sent to her boyfriend was forwarded to her former classmates.

To appropriately respond to an alleged case of sexting, law enforcement officers must decide if the sender’s behavior falls into one of two categories. If the image or communication involves transmitting sexually explicit conduct to minors, or if any illegal use of a computer is involved in the communication, then specific steps are taken to properly deal with the situation. In the case of the latter, a boy or girl who views, sends or stores inappropriate pictures on a school’s computer might face charges for “unauthorized use or damages,” according to the FBI.

As officers continue to deal with cases of sexting, the misconduct has caught lawmakers’ attention. According to the University of Michigan, 17 states have created laws regarding youth sexting and 13 states have drafted legislation that is currently pending. In 2009, legislators in Utah, Ohio and Vermont began considering making laws decriminalizing sexting among youth. If passed, a proposed bill in California would make it legal to expel students for sexting during school.

However, sexting is not solely limited to juveniles. Recent reports reveal that FBI employees have sent each other inappropriate messages from both personal and government-issued cellphones, according to NBC News.

“The instances described are not unlike those that occur among employees of any other large agency or organization in the country,” a spokesperson for the FBI Office of Public Affairs said in a statement to NBC News. “It is important to note that in an organization of more than 36,000 employees, these disciplinary incidents involve a fraction of 1 percent of FBI employees.”

The case is not the first instance of employees sending racy messages electronically. In 2010, the United States Supreme Court ruled in a Southern California case that employees should assume that their bosses will monitor employees’ communication, “meaning that those sending nude photos and explicit messages are bound to get busted,” according to NBC News.

Moreover, according to AARP Magazine, the practice is common among adults who want to spice up their sexual routines. But although they may be contributing to the statistics, adults could help bring down the number of sexting cases. According to the University of Michigan, 93 percent of parents polled believe that parents in general should have a more serious role in addressing the problem of youth sexting.

“Across the country, the public supports requiring schools to distribute information about sexting to students and parents. Since adults strongly feel that parents should play a major role in addressing sexting, this is a great opportunity for parents and schools to work together on this issue,” Matthew Davis, M.D., Associate Professor in the Child Health Evaluation and Research Unit at the University of Michigan Medical School, said in a public statement.

However, there is still a possibility that students may not feel comfortable sharing their sexting practices with their parents or even their friends.

“I do believe it’s possible that some of my friends may sext, but they do not discuss it with me because they know my conservative view on sexting,” senior Valerie Deutsch said. “I know people who have been humiliated due to their lack of caution when it came to sexting. And why sext when you can actually spend time with someone or do something more productive with your time?”

Other teenagers feel that sexting does not pose a threat when done under certain circumstances.

“It’s kind of a fun distraction, but it can be [unproductive] if you’re doing it [every day],” one senior, who wished to remain anonymous, said.

Whatever a sender’s motivations may be, the FBI recommends that youth and adults who sext consider the consequences. An image or message that is originally sent to someone’s significant other could end up being sent to another audience. In addition, those who forward a sexual picture of a minor are considered the original sender and could potentially face pornography charges, go to jail and register as a sex offender. The FBI advocates that those who receive messages should report any nude photos to a trustworthy adult, teacher or school counselor.

“It’s important for kids to know that anything they put out electronically (on Facebook, on Twitter, on Tumblr and through texting) is permanent,” Norman-Franks said. “They can’t delete it. They need to think if they’d be comfortable with a parent, administrator or college representative reading it, and if they’re not, then they shouldn’t send the message.”

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