CLEVELAND — NBC News recently reported the story of an Ohio teen who texted a suggestive photo of herself to a boyfriend. When the couple later broke up, he shared the photo with others. Lots of others.
In an interview last May, the girl warned others not to do what she had done. In July, she committed suicide.
Teenagers around the country are finding their reputations tarnished for doing the same — and some are even facing criminal charges under child pornography laws.
"Sexting" — the exchange of explicit photos and videos via the Internet or cell phone — is the latest teen trend to make the headlines. Some states are invoking criminal penalties to combat the practice, but state lawmakers in Vermont passed a bill in April to legalize the consensual exchange of graphic images between two people 13 to 18 years old. Passing along such images to others would remain a crime, but the bill would prevent teens from being criminalized as sex offenders or child pornography traffickers.
An online survey of 653 teens commissioned last fall by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy in Washington found that one in five teens had sent nude or semi-nude photos or videos of themselves via cell phone or websites. Of those, 71% of girls and 67% of boys said the images were sent to boyfriends or girlfriends. But 21% of girls and 37% of boys said they sent images to someone they wanted to "hook up with."
Libby McCartney, director of public relations for the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, which sends missionaries to Catholic and non-Catholic college campuses across the country to evangelize, says "sexting" is part of the larger culture of casual sex and hooking up, which the organization is trying to combat by emphasizing chastity, the beauty of marriage, and respect for the opposite sex.
"It's a new phenomenon in the last five years, since cell phones have become more prevalent," she said. "It comes up in our Bible studies when we focus on chastity and purity. We keep our Bible studies separated by gender, so men and women can feel comfortable talking about the real problems they're dealing with and start to make progress in pursuing virtue."
Experts disagree as to how prevalent "sexting" is among teens, but one high school teacher told McCartney that the texting culture among high school and middle school students is so prevalent that she doesn't even try to deal with it or she would be confiscating phones all day.
Bill Boomer, director of marriage and family ministry for the Diocese of Cleveland, says he has heard the news accounts of "sexting," and it is a source of concern because teens don't think of the consequences of what they're doing. The office is working with the youth ministry department to educate parents about it.
"I don't think it's time to panic, but technology in the last few years, particularly with cell phones and YouTube, is instantaneous, and it takes a while for parents to catch up with what's going on and address it," he said.
A Catholic high school in the Cleveland Diocese had to confront "sexting" a few years ago, when some students were passing around a nude photo on cell phones and a parent found out her sons had received it, but Boomer hasn't heard much about it since.
As the father of a junior high school-age son and college-age daughter, he has spoken to them about the trend, and they were both aware of it. He said the first line of defense in dealing with these trends is in the home with the parents.
"We've talked with both of our kids at young ages about never posting or revealing personal information over the Internet. Having said that, I'm very aware of the environment out there. The things that the youth post, for my taste, is still too much information, particularly pictures and conversations. At home, our general approach is that technology is a tool for good, but you have to use safeguards," said Boomer. "If you have an open, nurturing connection with your children and strong expectations of proper behavior, kids will do better and have a much better sense of right and wrong, and it has an impact on their choices."
Anastasia Goodstein, founder of the youth marketing site Ypulse.com and author of Totally Wired: What Teens & Tweens Are Really Doing Online (St. Martin's Griffin, 2007), says anytime young people embrace media and technology en masse older people tend to panic and the media covers the more sensational stories.
"We've seen this throughout history, everything from Elvis to MTV," she says. "The reality is that teens aren't doing anything different than in the past; they're just using technologies today. The fact that things can go viral and be spread much quicker and end up in public forums obviously brings with it a different set of consequences."
Goodstein pointed out that 80% of the teens in the National Campaign survey had not participated in "sexting." Teens that she has spoken with knew someone who had sent or received an image from the Web, but not of themselves.
"It may have been a porn star or someone they didn't know," she said. "When I was writing the book, the issue was more about MySpace and the girls who would post pictures of themselves trying to be sexy. These girls weren't posting these images for some creepy person, but for their boyfriend or their friends for instant validation."
She doesn't believe in criminalizing young people for "sexting," but she says it's one more thing that parents need to talk to their kids about.
"Teens are impulsive and don't think through the consequences of what they do. They need to understand that once it's in a digital format and it's out there it's hard to take it back, and it can damage your reputation."
Barb Ernster writes from