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article imageSexting and teenagers: Are societal norms to blame?

By Nikki Weingartner     Mar 10, 2009 in Lifestyle
Sexting is a growing trend amongst teens in the United States, landing individuals in court, on the sex offender registry and for some, in the grave. But it is really a problem with skewed moral views in the United States?
In light of recent controversy over a case involving an 18 year old young man forced to register as a sex offender for knowingly disseminating a nude picture of his ex-girlfriend, 16, in a retaliatory act executed to get back at her (see story here on Digital Journal), some interesting perspectives were brought to light. For some, the belief that a teenager, even 18, held accountable is more heinous than the act itself, citing it more as a societal vengeance than consequence for one's action. For others, the blame lies again with society, pointing a finger at legislation and skewed views of the human body in natural form. Still others lump the issue in with isolated cases involving "zero tolerance," claiming again that society is to blame because of moral panic.
The truth is that none of the supposed defenses actually shine a light on the problems that arise from teenage thrill-seeking and impulsive behaviours, some as young as 12 and 13, like sending nude and semi-nude images of themselves to another individual.
In late February, a 37-year-old teacher in Murfreesboro, Tennessee was added to the growing list of Sex Offenders after he plead guilty to four out of the 10 sexual offense charges against him. He was accused of sending two students sexual text messages, also known as "sexting," and with contacting them on a social networking site as well. In the local Fox News report, one of the girls was said to have sent him a digital image of herself, to which the teacher allegedly replied that he wanted to "see more skin."
His admittance to his actions kept him out of jail but landed him on the National Sex Offender registry as well as barring him from teaching in primary (elementary) or secondary (middle and high) schools.
The fact that he was 37-years-old and a teacher at the school where the students attended was enough to land him in jail for twenty years in other states based upon rules surrounding the teacher / student relationship.
In the case of Philip Alpert, who was 18 at the time he sent the nude image of his younger girlfriend out to more than 70 individuals, including adults, he will be a registered sex offender until he is 43-years-old. Alpert's own defense: "I don't think it's fair." And he isn't alone, as pointed out earlier that many blame the laws and moral panic instead of the actions of the young adult in this case, even citing faux-beliefs such that the likelihood that the nude or semi-nude images will go beyond a teenagers eyes is relatively low.
Despite the law itself making it a felony to take, send or keep any image, including pictures, of a minor in a sexually explicit manner, the sad fact is that once those images go beyond the intended viewer, they can go anywhere and end up in the possession of any individual, including criminals and unregistered sex offenders who would find such an image a prized possession.
Look into the allegedly vengeful act of Philip Alpert, where he sent the image to an unknown number of adults. The likelihood of an 18-year-old having friends and acquaintances that are considered "adult" by law is pretty valid and the false belief that sending an image to over 70 individuals will result in that image ending with those individuals shows a high level of ignorance. Had that been the case, the image would likely have never left the possession of the initial intended recipient. Even the stats show that around 25 percent received an image they weren't suppose to receive.
A 17-year-old or even younger individual who performs the same type of retaliatory act has the same chances that the image will get into the hands of the "wrong" adult. Teens have older brothers with whom they share images and jokes; they have relatives; they have work buddies; the list goes on and the destructive part is that a one-time action of a young individual could have a serious negative impact on their future self-esteem and even pose a safety risk.
A collaborative "sexting" survey accomplished by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unwanted Pregnancy and other concerned organizations revealed some very interesting trends surrounding sexing and teenagers. For instance, teenage girls make up a higher portion of those sending electronic nude or semi-nude images, with over one in five girls engaging in sexing as opposed to under one in five boys. Of those teenage girls sending nude or semi-nude images, over 70 percent stated that the image was intended for a boyfriend, while just under 70 percent of teen boys said it was for their girlfriends. Less popular reasons for "sexting" including flirting, wanting to "hook up" with someone and joking.
Around one teen in every six actually admits to sending a naked or semi-nude image to a complete stranger they met online. Of course, anonymity with sexual predators, pedophiles and child molesters continues to be an issue with certain social networking sites where a fake age provides temporary protection for the offender while knowingly stalking young victims.
One mom in Lincoln, Nebraska found over 70 pornographic images of her children on their cell phones, all believed to be taken by themselves.
Why are they sending these images?
Exploration and fun is part of the natural development process. Most adults can think back to a time or two in their life where they skirted the rules just a tad, engaging in some exploratory behaviours. However, whether or not many would admit to engaging in a felony offense is another question. Unfortunately, nearly half of the girls sending the images do so because of pressure from individuals on the receiving end. In Teen Dating Violence, the "pressure into sex" is considered abuse, as it uses some type of coercive power over another to obtain an end result. In the case of teens who are still developing emotionally, hormonally and physically, pressure can often result in an individual feeling "brow beaten" into submission. In the case of "sexting," this could have dire consequences.
As an expert on children's behaviour at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Pennsylvania explained:
teens often engage in risky behavior out of impulse or because of peer pressure.
Who is on the receiving end of these images?
One in four teen girls and one in three teen boys have received a nude or semi-nude image that was "not" intended for them, totaling 48 percent of teens surveyed. Another 40 percent of teens had been shown an image sent to someone else, meaning they might not have been on the receiving end but were a part of the viewing process.
Once that image is out there, it can have further negative consequences that may be unknown to the individual in the picture. For instance, according to a news report last spring, Universities are known to scout Web sites to ensure the potential student is deemed worthy. Anything considered "questionable" could result in a rejected application, a denial of admission or even a termination of a scholarship. As one post-secondary adviser of 42-years explained, college admissions officers are warning students about the impact of sexting.
Take the story of Stacy Snyder, who in 2006 was refused a teaching degree by the Millersville University in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania just days prior to receiving her degree. The reason was due in part to a suggestive digital image she posted on her MySpace page. Although she tried to sue the University, the judge dismissed her case.
And college acceptance isn't the only concern. Potential employers have been known to do the same thing in order to help ensure the individuals they hire are a cultural match for the organization. Employers want a quality employee and questionable behaviour such as "sexting" can have negative consequences on job selection as well.
In the February, 2009 issue of Seventeen Magazine, a story about a high school cheerleader named Brooke and a female friend who took pictures of themselves naked was headlined, showing how these images can create some negative and embarrassing consequences. The girls denied sending the photos out to anyone, but somehow, someone got ahold of their cell phone images and sent them to the principal. Brooke was booted from the cheerleading squad while the person who disseminated the photos went unpunished. Her "unwise" decision ended up causing her humiliation, embarrassed her boyfriend at the time and the loss of what she obviously enjoyed doing: Cheerleading.
Her parents filed a suit against the district for "failing to promptly report the matter to police as possible child pornography," amongst other things. This is due to the fact that the girls were punished for the pictures while the individuals who disseminated them remained unscathed for their actions.
Know the consequences!
Knowing that sending images over the Internet or other media such as a cell phone could result in a felony charge, especially if those images are of a minor, is paramount in helping a seemingly impervious subset of the population from getting caught up in a potentially dangerous situation. However, other bits of advice are key in understand the actions of "sexting":
1. The assumption of privacy is a false assumption. Know that everything you send, even if you expect it to remain private, can end up in the hands of some you may not want to view the contents and can pose a safety risk.
2. There is "no changing your mind in cyberspace." Once it goes out, its is out there.
3. Don't give in to pressure. If it makes you uncomfortable - Don't DO IT!
4. Know that if you are underage, it is a felony offense to take images of yourself, disseminate those images and keep them in your possession.
As for parents, it is also very important as the ones who hand over the "offending" devices to ensure that they stay in the middle of all images being sent. Providing clear and consistent guidelines about what is appropriate behaviour on cell phones and computers is absolutely crucial in the process of keeping kids out of trouble. Clothing, language, pictures and other inappropriate behaviour that is not deemed acceptable in the home should be provided as a boundary for online behaviour as well. Continual reminders as well as keeping your nose in their "business" will also help to lessen the risk of future problems.
While some of the punitive measures handed out in "accordance with the law" may be deemed excessive, such as the case of the six students aged 14 - 17, charged in juvenile court on separate counts associated with child pornography, the fact remains that extrapolating from society that moral issues are somehow wrongly responsible for an impulsive and vulnerable group's actions, some of which are retaliatory in nature only fuels the fire that continues to grow.
Until the laws are changed to hold accountable specifically those who engage in different aspects of "sexting" such as wrongly pressuring a minor to take pictures of themselves, sending out images as a means of "revenge" or other common problems associated with the act, current legislation is all we have to keep safe those who become blind victims of "sexting." It is the responsibility of the court system to investigate each case individually and hold accountable those responsible in an appropriate manner. Unfortunately, not ever victim has the means of filing a civil suit and therefore, a reliance on the legal system may be the only way to hold a malicious individual accountable for their actions.
The best piece of advice for everyone out there either as a parent, a grandparent, advocate or teen:
Teenagers should be aware of the real consequences to this type of behavior and we need to provide them with guidance and encourage them to make smart choices.
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