"Sexting" is the new term we apply when people electronically transmit racy, even nude photos of themselves to each other - not the best of ideas, and all the worse when those caught doing it are underage teens. Our Cover Story is reported by Rita Braver:
When celebrity teenager Vanessa Hudgens took some racy photos with her cell phone and sent them to a boyfriend, the star of the "High School Musical" films never expected them to show up on the Internet.
For her the result was embarrassment and fodder for gossip columnists and blogs.
But legally, sexually explicit pictures of minors can be classified as child pornography.
And "sexting" among everyday teens can mean big trouble …
"My life's been, it's just so different, I can even say upside down," said Orlando teenager Phillip Alpert. "It's just so far out there, something I never expected."
For Alpert it all started when he was a senior in high school. He had a girlfriend for a couple of years who sent him some pictures of herself.
"She was not wearing clothes in the pictures," he told Braver.
"And then you two started not getting along so well?" she asked.
"Yeah," Alpert said. "It was a few months after that, that basically things just kind of fell apart with the two of us."
"What'd you do?"
"I took the pictures she had sent me, and like at 3:30 in the night, I just hit the select button for contacts, and I just hit 'send,' and I went back to bed."
It was a few days after his 18th birthday, so legally Albert was an adult. Three days later, the police came to his home:
"They arrested me," he told Braver "They wanted to charge with, I think, like 76 counts of sending child pornography, which just means jail or prison for the rest of my life, or I could plead to five years probation, which can't be cut short - no contact with the victim or her parents, no Internet."
But what Phillip Alpert did NOT realize is that he would also be listed on Florida's Registry of Sexual Offenders, now and for 20 years AFTER his probation ends
"I mean, the guilt that I felt after I realized that I did it was punishment enough," he said. "But now I'm on this list, this sex offender list, so everyone in my neighborhood, or anyone near me can look me up on the Internet. And people have come to my house and checked up on me to make sure I wasn't a violent threat to their children."
Alpert was thrown out of the local community college when officials there realized he was on the list.
Now 19, he recently lost his job, and has not found another. He's living on savings and help from his family.
"When you meet someone new, do you sort of realize, 'Okay, I'm gonna have to tell them about this?'" Braver asked.
"It's very difficult, 'cause not a lot of people wanna be friends with a sex offender kid anyways," he said. "Do you tell them right away and then hope that they don't, you know, run away from you?"
"Has that happened?"
"Yes," he said.
Civil liberties attorney Larry Walters, who did not handle Phillip Alpert's case originally, said he was "floored" when he read about what happened the young man, and is now trying to help free of charge.
"We're dealing with kids exchanging photos of themselves in sexually explicit positions, and that is in my view a social problem, just like teen sexual activity," Walters told Braver. "The criminal justice system is not the proper vehicle to deal with something like that."
He says it's a long shot, but he plans to file a motion asking that Phillip's sentence be amended so his name can be taken off the sex offender list.
Legislation is now pending in states like Vermont and Ohio to lesson penalties for sexting, and Utah recently changed the offense from a felony to a misdemeanor.
Walters says ALL states should decriminalize picture-sharing among teenagers:
"The punishment doesn't fit the crime in this case," Walters said. "What's happening is you're punishing these kids, and there are a lot of them throughout the United States now."
In fact, a recent survey shows that it's very common teenage behavior.
Bill Albert of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy said, "We found, surprisingly, that one in five teens, and one in three young adults, freely admitted that they have sexted these nude or semi-nude images on the Internet or sent them via their cell phone."
Albert said about the same number of boys and girls have posted nude photos of themselves.
And this is not just a phenomenon among older teens: Eleven percent of teenage girls age 13 to 16 have sexted.
And while 67% of teenagers believe sexting is dangerous, Albert doubts that they really grasp the long-term implications:
"You know, I'm not sure many young people understand that this is sort of a cyber-tatoo," he said. "Once you press 'send.' it is out of your hands, and it can be used in ways that are a complete surprise of you."
Mindful of the case of Jessica Logan, an Ohio teenager whose family says she killed herself after her former boyfriend allegedly forwarded nude photos she'd sent him, local communities like Springfield, Va., are calling meetings to warn about the dangers of sexting.
"These are good kids, they don't know what they are doing," said police officer Marc McDonald.
Girls here say they don't personally engage in sexting, but agree with the survey's findings that 85% of teens believe girls do it to get a guy's attention, and 47% say pressure from a guy is a reason girls send sexy photos and messages.
One girl, Carol, said, "They compliment you, but like after that, and after it spreads and everyone hears abut it, then everyone starts talking bad about you, then it all, like, goes down from there."
And in some places, it can go from bad … to worse.
In the small town of Tunkhannock, in Wyoming County, Pennsylvania, girls who posed for revealing pictures now face child pornography charges.
When officials at the local high school found cell phones with sexy photos, they called in George Skumanick, the local District Attorney.
"We have a duty to protect our children," Skumanick told Braver. "And if they're gonna do things that are criminal, just 'cause they're kids, that shouldn't make it not criminal."
He told the kids who owned the cell phones, and those identified in the photos, they would either face felony charges, or accept probation while they took an education course that would cost them $100 each.
"So basically, it was five sessions, just to get across the dangers of doing this, short-term and long-term," he said.
But not every family opted for the deal.
Fifteen-year-old Marissa Miller said she had never posed for a sexy photo, and her mother, Mary Jo, demanded to see what the prosecutor was talking about.
The photo was taken at a slumber party when Marissa was 12.
"And what are they wearing?" Braver asked.
"Bras, training bras, plain training bras," Miller said.
"What did you say to the D.A. when you saw this photo that he said was child porn?"
"I actually, my first reaction was complete relief," she said. "I tossed it and said, 'Oh, Marissa!' My husband, my ex-husband said, 'What's wrong with this photo?' And he said she was posing provocatively."
Marissa refused to go to the class:
"Because it wasn't fair, I didn't do anything wrong," she said. "So why should I stand back and just let him tell us what to do?"
So the Millers and two other families contacted the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued in Federal court to stop the D.A. from bringing any charges. The case is now on appeal.
And if Skumanick wins, and the kids still won't take his course?
"We'll do what we need to do," said the District Attorney.
"You mean criminal charges?" Braver asked.
"We'll do what's appropriate, and what needs to done - I won't say more than that," Skumanick said. "Its an ongoing investigation at this point."
But Skumanick says he too believe the law should be changed for sexting by teenagers:
"The key thing is, if it's minor-to-minor, you know, then it should be a misdemeanor, yeah."
But there is one other point we should mention … Marissa is expecting a baby this summer.
"One of the things that is argued by a lot of people who are pushing these prosecutions is, well, when people see these sexy pictures, they are more apt to have sexual relations which will lead to teen pregnancy - what's your view of that?" Braver asked.
"I think most people who sent them probably already were doing things, their parents just aren't aware of what they're doing," Marissa said.
"I think that it's a little overkill to say that because of sexting you're gong to end up [with] teen pregnancy," said her mother.
Bill Albert, an expert on teen pregnancy, says anything that leads to what he calls a more "casual hook-up culture" IS a cause for concern.
"I don't think young people's moral compass has caught up with the race of technology," he said.
And he says, for MANY reasons, young people should think carefully before they press "send" … something 19-year-old Phillip Alpert understands all too well.
"This part of my life is ruined," he said. "The college times, the high school times, the best times of my life, that's not for me. I just hope that later down the road, when I'm, you know, 30, 35, whatever, I have a nice job, a nice family and that this is all behind me."
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