Why kids need to know that racy messages and pictures sent in an instant can linger for a lifetime and could lead to criminal charges
"I plan on offering nudes to any guy that wants to give me notes from the past five weeks of class."
- Text message from the website Txts Frm Lst Nght
It's 9 o'clock on a Friday night. Parents: do you know where your teenagers are?
OK, so they're in their rooms, texting their friends on their cellphones.
But are they texting or are they sexting?
This might be a good time to find out.
Sexting is the practice of texting or otherwise transmitting sexually explicit conversations or nude or sexually evocative photographs.
And whether or not it's common among teens here, it is south of the border.
A poll conducted in the United States by The Associated Press (AP) and MTV in September found that more than one-quarter of the roughly 1,250 teenagers and adults ages 14-24 who were surveyed said they sexted, either using cellphones or online, usually to a romantic partner.
Unfortunately, what many younger kids don't realize is that their communications aren't necessarily private, and that sexting can have long-term repercussions - those racy photos can have a much longer shelf life than the relationship they're in at the moment.
A cellphone photo can be sent to hundreds of people - classmates, parents, teachers - in a matter of seconds, and the same goes for online photographs.
In the wrong hands, those photos could wind up being used against the person in them for bullying, blackmail or for sexual exploitation purposes.
As part of AP's poll, a 16-year-old from northern California acknowledged he'd sent naughty photos of himself to girlfriends and had showed other people naked pictures of a person a friend had sent to him.
"I just don't see (sexting) as that big of a problem, personally," he told AP, reflecting the attitude of roughly half of those surveyed.
But it's not just happening in the States.
Adults offer warnings
An informal poll of a group of young adults conducted locally found that sexting was quite common, although the twentysomethings who spoke to The Telegram stressed that it is only something they would consider in a committed romantic relationship with another adult they trusted completely.
"While I think it's OK for adults to do things like this to be playful and exciting in their grown-up sex lives, I have only read about young people doing it," said Juliette, 27, of St. John's, who says she has sent flirtatious text messages.
"I don't think many of them understand the repercussions of being sexually active too early. Perhaps parents should be talking with them about it."
Darren, a 27-year-old from Mount Pearl, says people should be very selective about sexting.
"I have done that," he says of the practice, "but I agree, it is bad with teens who haven't developed the maturity to handle something like that. I trust the people I have sexted with and still do, and although we're not together anymore, we remain close and trust each other's privacy. That's an important part of any relationship, and I doubt many teens and many adults, for that matter, have the maturity to handle something like that."
Aaron, 23, says sexters should also realize that technology is not perfect. A text message he sent three years ago to the guy he was dating ended up being rerouted to someone else's phone. Luckily, that message wasn't sexually explicit.
"Although none of our racy messages ever ended up in the wrong hands, we realized after that that it was entirely possible in the future," he said.
"I'm sure you can imagine how awkward it would be for a complete stranger to unintentionally get a message about how you want to rip their clothes off. That's when we stopped. And, of course, you never know how long those things last or how they get saved. Tiger Woods' sexts to his mistress (or one of them anyway) are now splashed all over the pages of US Weekly for all to see … so, needless to say, sexting should probably be watched carefully."
Sheena Goodyear, 24, who is originally from this province but now lives on the mainland, says sexting is great for keeping a relationship fun and exciting, particularly in her case, because her boyfriend lives in another province. She believes in talking frankly about sexual matters, but also urges caution and common sense.
"I've never sexted in the 'sending naked pictures' sense of the word, and I wouldn't," she writes.
"My boyfriend lives in another province, so we have to use technology to maintain a healthy sex life outside of our regular visits. Mostly, that involves phone sex, or sex via instant messaging. But with so much distance between us, it's easy to run out of things to say, so we also spice things up with some salacious text messages. And on occasion, we take it to the webcam.
"The technological realm is not that different from the real world. It's just another medium through which we communicate. Obviously, people have relationships in real life, so they're going to have them online, too. People have sex in real life, so they're going to take that aspect of themselves and explore it virtually. People have always written sexually charged letters to their lovers. And phone sex is certainly not a new phenomenon. Sexting is just that, but adapted to new mediums. It's not as terribly shocking as some folks are making it out to be.
"That said, just like how you need to make responsible decisions about sex in real life, you need to be equally responsible about online sex or sexting. For one, cover your tracks. Texting a naked picture or sending a sexual e-mail could come back to haunt you.
"And if you're underage, you need to be especially careful. There's no guarantee the boy or girl you're sending this stuff to won't turn around and send it to all your peers or post it online for everyone - including your parents - to see. It's no secret that teenagers are mean. Also, if you're underage, those pictures are problematic from a legal perspective. In the digital era, there's an infinite collective memory. Exercise extreme caution, kids!"
That's sound advice.
Kids could be charged
Felony charges have been laid against young sexters in the States, and according to the Criminal Code of Canada, explicit photos of people under the age of 18 are considered child pornography - and teens could be charged for creating, accessing and distributing such material.
"Once the pictures are in the possession of someone else, regardless of that person's age, it becomes child pornography as per the Criminal Code definition," said Cpl. Russell Allan, of the RCMP's Atlantic Region Technological Crime Unit in St. John's.
"The recipient can be charged with possession of child pornography, and the sender potentially could be charged with distributing child pornography."
In the U.S., sexting has been linked to at least two recent teen suicides.
In one case, AP reported that a 13-year-old girl in Florida sent a boy she liked nude pictures of herself and another girl used his phone to distribute the photos to others. She hanged herself after being taunted by her peers.
In Cincinnati in 2008, an 18-year-old girl hanged herself after she was ridiculed at school. She had sent her boyfriend a nude photo of herself, which he sent to other girls after they broke up.
These stories are extreme examples of the tragic ramifications sexting can have. Responsible sexting between consenting, committed adults who value each other's privacy can be harmless.
But given how easy technology makes it to reach out and touch someone these days, it's worth remembering that it's equally easy to reach out and ruin someone's life.
And that's worth talking to your kids about. Face to face.
Pam Frampton is The Telegram's story editor. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her columns online at www.thetelegram.com.