Thursday, August 26, 2010

Sexting: Flirting or Felony?

"You should have seen the picture on his phone! She was completely naked!"

I overheard this at a party. Someone there was retelling a story about her stepson receiving a picture message on his cellphone. After learning that the recipient of the aforementioned picture message was thirteen years old, I began wonder how many teens were actually getting involved in sending sexually explicit text messages.

I discovered this is not an isolated incident. As cellphones have become more and more popular will teens and young adults, texting and picture messaging has exploded. This has also lead to the strange trend of "sexting"; sending nude or semi-nude photos by cellphone as a way of flirting. The latest studies show that sexing is on the rise. In 2008, between 25 and 30 percent of teens claimed to have engaged in sexting. The most recent study announced in July shows that number has climbed to 43 percent.

As a whole, it doesn't seem like too many people are raising eyebrows about sexting. Many of the teens surveyed commented that "No one gives it that much thought really" and that the photos are usually sent for no reason other than to be "fun or flirtatious." The most recent study also surveyed the parents of the teens and found that 28% of the parents engaged in sexting. Most parents said that sexting was "not a bad thing."

If you are a teen and you are reading this, you may be nodding your head in agreement. I mean, if the parents don't think it's serious, it must not be a big deal. Right?

So what are the risks?
If you are under the age of 18 and you either text or post nude pictures, you could face felony charges of child pornography. Does this sound far-fetched? Well, in 2009 a 14-year-old New Jersey girl posted dozens of sexually explicit photos of herself on her MySpace. She was arrested and charged with possession and distribution of child pornography.

If you are over 18, the consequences become a bit more severe. If you are caught texting or posting pictures of someone under the age of 18, not only could you face felony charges, you also may have to register as a sex offender. You may have heard about Phillip Alpert from Florida. At age 18, Phillip decided that the best way to get back at his ex-girlfriend was to forward an e-mail of her posing nude to dozens of people, including her parents. Phillip is now 20, and will have to register as a sex offender until he is 43 years old.

Phillip's story brings attention to another important point. Just because you text or e-mail a photo to a friend doesn't mean that your friend will keep the photo private. To give you a completely ridiculous example, while Halloween costume shopping with a friend, I snapped a photo on my iPhone of him wearing a giant fur coat and a cowboy hat. I posted the photo to Facebook and tagged him in the photo.

Within a matter of hours, over a dozen mutual friends had commented on the photo. They took the photo and circulated it all over Facebook. People were texting him and laughing about his new look. He also had neglected to shave that day so there was also a wealth of comments pertaining to his bizarre facial hair.

While my friend was in good spirits about this, think what had happened if this had been a sexually explicit photo. Once a photo is on the Internet, it is just a "right-click and save" away from distribution. This is what so many teens (and adults) seem to forget when it comes to sexting.

Even if texted photos never make it to MySpace or Facebook, there is still a possibility that they will get forwarded from phone to phone. It may seem like flirty, harmless fun, but do you really want everyone at school seeing that picture?

And as for the thirteen year old who ended up getting a surprise text? I'm sure the last though on the sender's mind was "Gee, I hope his parents find this picture."

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