Barely 14 years old, six Massachusetts boys use their cellphones to capture photos of a naked female classmate, then send them to their school chums. In the same state, a 14-year-old girl sends a nude photo of herself to another teen, who forwards it to 100 students at the local middle and high schools, as well as another school in a neighbouring town.
More and more teens are experiencing the grim personal repercussions of sexting, the practice of sending sexually explicit images by cellphone text message.
The photos can be as mischievous as Miley Cyrus's bra reveal, or as tawdry as the nude photo spread of High School Musical star Vanessa Hudgens doled out to the media by her bitter ex. But even those with the most innocent intentions are learning that digital come-ons can have serious - and legal - consequences.
The United States has seen a rash of incidents this year, and prosecutors have begun taking action.
In Allen County, Ind., a teenaged boy is facing felony obscenity charges after he sent a photo of his genitals to several female classmates. In Greensburg, Pa., three high-school girls who sent partly nude photos of themselves, and the boyfriends who received the pics, faced child-pornography charges last month; and in Newark, Ohio, a 15-year-old girl faced similar charges for sending seamy photos of herself to her classmates.
"A lot of these new technologies promote and foster disclosure because it's so easily done," said Amy Muise, a PhD psychology student at the University of Guelph who specializes in human sexuality and the Internet.
"You don't even need anyone else to take the picture."
A joint 2008 poll from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy (a Washington-based non-profit organization) and CosmoGirl magazine surveyed 653 teens and found that 21 per cent of the girls and 18 per cent of the boys had electronically sent or posted online nude or semi-nude pictures or video of themselves - even though the vast majority understood it could backfire.
Most experts agree that pubescent teens are no more lewd today than they were 50 years ago. But today's technology means the personal and societal ramifications are far more serious, and instant, says Steve Jones, a communications professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
"They have the means to visualize their lewdness a little more explicitly than they have in the last few decades, and then to share those visual images. This isn't sneaking around at camp with a copy of Playboy and showing two or three friends. It's potentially global," he says.
Overwhelmingly, teens sext their own partners. The survey found that 71 per cent of girls who sexted and 67 per cent of guys were sexting their significant other. Still, 25 per cent of the girls and 23 per cent of the boys admitted to sharing a sext with someone other than the person for whom it was intended.
Prof. Jones said the problem is rooted in an "invincibility" complex.
"We tend to feel that because it's electronic and slips into the ether that it's somehow impermanent or unreal. But the opposite is true. Not only is it permanent, but it's easily replicable."
Many of the teens surveyed said they felt compelled to send the messages: 47 per cent of both sexes said "pressure from guys" motivated them to sext, while 24 per cent cited coercion from friends.
"Of all the results in our survey, the one that was the most sobering and really most depressing was that such a significant proportion of teen girls said that they were doing this because their boyfriend asked them to," said Bill Albert, chief program officer for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
Perhaps even more troubling is the fact that sexting appears to be changing teens' behaviour in the real world.
Thirty-eight per cent of the respondents said exchanging sexually suggestive pictures and texts made "hooking up" with others more likely, and 29 per cent believed the exchange meant you were expected to have sex.
In some of the American cases, teens held onto photos of their partners and distributed them out of spite after the relationship fizzled.
"It's a form of cyberbullying. The dejected boyfriend or the dejected girlfriend then shares that image with other people in the school," says Terry Humphreys, an assistant psychology professor at Trent University whose primary research interest is the negotiation of sexual consent in young adults.
Still, Prof. Humphreys says, many teens are pro-actively sexting to flirt: "I think a lot of it goes on much more consensually. ... Cyberbullying and the images staying out there forever somewhere, those are real concerns, but we're taking a lot of what is youthful sexual expression and then automatically seeing it as problematic and, in the case of the U.S., criminal."
In Canada, police are considering each case separately. Toronto Police Services dismissed one case earlier this year after two teens were discovered sexting: The parents were concerned that the other teen was an adult posing as a child and called police.
"Shared pornography between two people is actually legal as long as there's no one involved who is in a position of trust or authority," said Detective Sergeant Kim Scanlan of the Toronto Police Service's child exploitation section. "But when it gets shared with others or forwarded, that's when it becomes a criminal matter." Det. Sgt. Scanlan says parents who arm their kids with Internet-capable cellphones are fuelling the problem, which is likely to persist as camera phones become standard. She and other experts stress "keeping the communication lines open" with teens, and teaching them to report abuses.
"I'm sure parents need only think back to their teen years, when much was going on at dances, in parked cars, and under the bleachers. We can't tie them up, but we have to keep communicating and know who they are," says Susan Pennell-Sebekos, managing editor of the online magazine ParentsCanada.com.
Mr. Albert says parents need to look beyond the technology and to the deeper matters of self-worth behind the hookup culture.
"The knee-jerk reaction of a lot of parents is to blame the technology and get rid of the cellphone. That makes about as much sense as blaming the automobile for drunk driving. It certainly makes this behaviour possible, but it's the decisions of each individual that are making the difference here. It's not the phone that's telling you take your clothes off."Report Typo/Error