Advancements in smart phones made it all too easy to send naked photographs and racy messages with the click of a button.
However, while the legal burden for youthful “sexters” has lessened, the sharing of these types of messages and photographs can cause severe and lasting emotional damage.
“ ‘Sexting’ leads to a number of problems that cannot be deleted,” said Dan Blair, a licensed clinical professional counselor and founder of Blair Counseling in Crystal Lake. “These pictures can be used later by someone to gain power and cause pain. Or, kids may be kicked off a sports team or out of school, or prosecuted and persecuted. The helplessness and hopelessness can lead to significant depression and anxiety.”
A study performed by the Associated Press and MTV in 2009 found that three in 10 people between the ages 14 and 24 report having been involved in some type of text messaging involving nude photographs, and almost half of sexually active young people report being involved in sexting.
Perhaps an even more alarming statistic found by the study was that almost one in five sext recipients report that they have passed the images along to someone else. More than half of those who passed the images to someone else say they shared them with more than one person, a report on the study said.
“Kids are so wired in right now,” said Mary Krueger, a licensed clinical professional counselor from Cary. “They have cell phones, social networking sites and live video games, so they’re used to talking to nameless, faceless people. They don’t perceive the consequences until they feel them.”
Things get a little more complicated when messages and photographs are shared by students.
Tom Lind, assistant principal at Richmond-Burton High School, said that the school’s policy on cell phone use in general had evolved throughout the years. Students can use their cell phones in school in between classes and in the lunch room, but not in class or in the hallway.
If a student is found to have sent, received or spread lewd text messages, however, the school has a different approach.
“Any time we have a situation like that, we turn it immediately over to the police for investigation, and they follow up,” Lind said. “When it comes to the legal aspect of it, we allow the police to take control of the investigation.”
Thanks to sexting legislation signed by Gov. Pat Quinn last April, violators under age 18 must stand before a judge and could face supervision, community service and counseling as punishment for sexting offenses. Before the new act, minors faced stricter criminal charges and could have been deemed sexual predators.
This move lessens the legal burden for offenders, but after the public humiliation that often accompanies the exposure of suggestive messages and photographs, offended parties might continue to suffer.
When Gwen Ames, a therapist with Meridian Behavioral Health McHenry, deals with patients who have experienced this type of embarrassment, she said that she focused on improvement for the future.
“When I meet with kids, I teach them the traits you’d find in a healthy relationship [and partner],” she said. “Are you respected? Are they supportive? Is there good communication? Are they caring and encouraging?
“I have them look at that and compare it to some of the people they’re with. I focus a lot on respect and ask, ‘Is this the way you would want your daughter or son to be treated?’ ”
Ames also encourages youths to spend time in groups in public places until they really get to know a person they might consider dating.
“I have a friend who worked with troubled youth and she always told them that you marry the people you date, so date the people you want to marry,” Ames said.