It’s an ordinary day and you’re sitting in your room texting some friends. Your phone beeps and lights up, telling you you’ve received a new picture message. The next thing you know, you reveal a racy photo of a kid you recognize from school. After getting over the shock, you simply dismiss the incident and move on to what you had been doing. What’s the big deal? Everyone is doing it, right?
Sexting. It’s the new trend teens have picked up on all across the United States. This word simply refers to the sharing of sexually explicit photos through cellular phones.
“Everyone has a cell phone now, so I guess sending a provocative picture to someone would be a lot easier,” said junior Sarah Scott. “However, just because it’s easy doesn’t make it right.”
Last year the Kettering City School District had three known incidents of it, one taking place at Fairmont and the other two at Kettering Middle School and Van Buren Middle School. More recently in March, Kettering police charged a 14-year-old KMS student for sexting when the student’s cell phone was confiscated by school officials and photos of the student engaging in a sexual act with a classmate were found on the phone.
According to Fairmont Sociology teacher Tina Kurtz, hormones are one culprit for the popularity of sexting. “I think it’s somewhat typical teen behavior – experimentation with sexuality and freedom,” she said.
But this isn’t the only culprit. People are pointing their fingers at other things as well. “I don’t think you can blame the sexting trend on one or two things,” said South Unit Principal Dan VonHandorf. “I think the media, society and home life are all pieces that cause it.”
Kurtz agreed with VonHandorf on this. “I also think it gets passed down the way many bad habits do,” said Kurtz. “It started with adults putting crap on the Internet. Now that teens do it, it’s more problematic.”
But Kettering Middle School Principal Jim Justice has another theory that may explain the sexting trend. “Research tells us the part of the brain that assesses risk is not fully developed in younger people,” he said. “This can result in failing to think through both the short- and long-term ramifications of certain choices, particularly those that involve risky behaviors. If you couple that with available technology, it’s almost inevitable that we see trends developing along these lines.”
Under state law, a teen could be charged with a felony for sexting and risk being labeled a sex offender. “It concerns me that some don’t understand it’s a serious offense legally,” said VonHandorf. “They don’t look at it as a big deal, but the courts do.”
In fact, Pennsylvania District Attorney George Skumanik accused three girls of peddling child pornography when pictures of the girls in their bras showed up on other classmates’ cell phones. “This is a huge area of concern for public officials,” said Justice. “Policies and laws are just being developed to contend with these behaviors in younger people.”
VonHandorf also said he is “torn” on whether it’s fair for a teen found guilty of sexting to face being labeled a sex offender. “But with stiff penalties I think it prevents sexting.”
On the other hand, Kurtz thinks the penalty is too harsh for teens, unless the person is 18 and has pornographic material of a minor.
To prevent some of these first-time teen “sexting offenders” from being labeled sex offenders, Montgomery County has started a diversion program. This program was announced by Montgomery County Prosecutor Mathias H. Heck Jr. on March 4.
The program requires teens charged with sexting to attend sessions on age-appropriate sexual boundaries and responsible use of the Internet, cell phones and other communication devices.
Teens accepted into the program must also undergo supervision for at least six months, give up their cell phones and perform community service. If the program is completed, then the charges will be dropped.
“The diversion program provides an opportunity for students to be educated before being negatively labeled for an extended period of time,” said Justice.
But some argue that being forced into a program such as this is unconstitutional. Skumanik called for the girls involved in the Pennsylvania incident to undergo five weeks of behavior courses and take a drug test, or face prosecution. But the girls and their parents are now suing the prosecutor because The American Civil Liberties Union said the “threat” was unconstitutional.
“My biggest concern about sexting is that kids don’t understand it’s something permanent,” VonHandorf said. “It could drastically affect a life down the road.”
Some students have similar feelings. “I think it’s a dangerous thing to do,” said Scott. “Especially if you’re a girl.”
Last year, an 18-year-old girl from Cincinnati committed suicide after dealing with months of teasing and torture from classmates at Sycamore High School after her ex-boyfriend had widely dispersed nude photos she had texted him.
“Kids use it against each other,” said Kurtz. “I’ve heard of teens snapping pictures at parties and showing them to significant adults to get kids kicked out of sports and clubs.”
Many believe it is the responsibility of the school and parents to prevent this trend from becoming more widespread. “Especially the parent because the majority of teen cell phones are paid by the parent, so they have the right to know what teens are using them for,” said Scott.
Students at Stebbins High School in Riverside go through assemblies and seminars explaining the potential dangers of the Internet and cell phones. “Schools educating and parents communicating can make a difference,” said VonHandorf.
Many seem to agree the key to sexting prevention is, in fact, communication. “Keep the lines of communication open with your child,” said Justice. “Keep track of who your child hangs around with, and monitor their cell phone use.”