Teen Sexting - A Dangerous Epidemic?

By Lindsey Connell - bio | email | Twitter

COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) -  On average, teenagers text between 1700 and 2200 times a month.

But not all of the messages contain your run of the mill conversations.

More and more are becoming "sexts"- text messages full of raunchy phrases and compromising, often nude pictures and videos.

"Sexting is when somebody engages in an activity using their cell phones to either send explicit sexual messages- things they will do or things they would like to be done to them- or pictures of photographs of themselves, their private body parts and we're seeing a lot of that taking place now. It may be elementary school, middle school or high school," revealed Kyle Bair, the executive director of the local Sexual Assault Support Center on 6th Avenue in Columbus.

We caught up with some local middle school students, who tell us sexting is an everyday thing.

"It's going on in every school- in school, out of school, on the bus, at home and on the computers," one of the students told WTVM.

They say many girls give in to the peer pressure and send sexts, thinking it's a fun, flirty and sexy present for the boy they like. But the attention they seek can turn on them with just the push of a button.

"Even boys or young men in committed relationships immediately show the pictures to their friends so now what was thought to be private is not private and once that picture is taken, they have absolutely no control, it's gone. They're playing adults games but they're not adults," said Bobbi Starr Corbin who works as a prevention coordinator at the Sexual Assault Support Center, mentoring parents and children.

Messages can spread through schools like wildfire- even end up online where there's no limit to who can see them.

Besides feeling betrayed and humiliated once their racy message gets forwarded to friends and classmates, teens may find themselves dealing with a tattered reputation for years to come.

But none of that compares to the legal consequences they could face. After all, we're talking about cases involving underage students. Young sexters and the recipients of their messages could find themselves in trouble with the law.

"Someone who is caught either creating an inappropriate text, a picture or sends it or exhibits it or shows it can be charged with Sexual Exploitation of Children in the state of Georgia which is punishable by a range of 5-20 years in prison and the person would have to place their name on the Georgia Sexual Offender Registry for the rest of their lives," explained Amy Walters, a Columbus attorney.

That law deals with anyone under 18, many of those high schoolers.

In Chattahoochee County, an 18-year-old boy was arrested and charged with Distribution of Obscene Material, a misdemeanor, after officials say he sent sexts to a 16-year-old girl.

There are very similar laws in Alabama, where anyone sending or receiving pictures of someone under 18 can be charged with Production of Obscene Material.

So for parents, what can they do to help make sure their kids don't get caught up in this?

"You would do a spot check and at any time, have the child understand that you are the authority with the phone and the phone is not a right, it's a privilege. I would check their text messaging and go through their pictures periodically," suggested Corbin.

Specialists say elementary school students should not have phones with cameras or internet access. Software is also available to track cell phone use.

And on top of that, parents need to have an open dialogue with their kids about the repercussions of sexting.

There's a darker side to sexting, especially if the pictures end up on the internet where they're prey to predators who could con teens into sending even more provocative poses and shots. It's a trend many are calling "sextortion."

"They find these pictures of somebody that they took of themselves or a friend took and then they start to blackmail them saying I'll tell your parents or I'll put this up on the school website- any number of things to frighten this person into doing what they want," Corbin added.

"It's time out for letting the students just do what they want to do with the cell phones. It's becoming an epidemic across the nation. We can step in and make sure that our students and our children are being protected," said Trikella Nelson, a counselor for the Muscogee County School District.

If you do get a "sext" the best thing you can do is delete it right away off your phone then report it to your service provider. After all, if the message was forwarded to you, you may not know if the person pictured is of age. If you're a student, report it to your school and parents.

Anyone affected by sexting can call the local Sexual Assault Support Center anonymously at 706-571-6010 for advice and resources.

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