NAUGATUCK — An 18-year-old girl sends an electronic nude photo of herself to her boyfriend thinking it will be their little secret. When they break up, the boy circulates the picture throughout school.
Unable to shake the embarrassment and endless harassment from classmates, the girl slips into a depression and hangs herself in her bedroom closet.
More than 150 students and parents gasped as they watched a video about Jessica Logan of Ohio last Wednesday at Naugatuck High School during a forum about “sexting”—sending sexually explicit photos or messages by cell phones or the Internet.
While it seemed an extreme example, lawmakers and police say it is the reality of how seemingly harmless teenage fun can turn tragic.
“Teens are often unable to realize the long-term consequences of their actions,” said State Police Sgt. James E. Smith, lead investigator of the Computer Crime and Electronic Evidence Unit.
The forum, which included a panel of local and state police, a rape crisis counselor, and a state prosecutor, was organized by state Reps. Rosa C. Rebimbas and David K. Labriola, Republicans from Naugatuck. They wanted to educate students about how to stay safe behind their computer screens and camera phones.
In a 2008 online survey by the TRU teen research organization of 653 teens between 13 and 19 years old, 20 percent said they had posted nude or seminude pictures of themselves online and 39 percent sent sexually explicit messages.
Those photos often end up in the wrong hands, said Naugatuck Police Detective Ronald Blanchard, whose investigations into Internet sex predators have led to 43 arrests. He said parents need to take responsibility and had a stern message for them: Don’t give your children phones with unlimited text messaging, cameras or Internet access. And he told them to monitor what their children have on their cell phones, in their e-mail accounts and on social networking Web sites such as Facebook and MySpace.
“Technology is great, and the Internet can be a wonderful place,” he said. “But I’ve also found that it can be a dark, dungy, awful place.”
Emily McClain of Naugatuck attended the forum with her two teenage sons. She said there is no real mystery about how parents can keep their children safe, on the Internet and in general terms.
“You need to be informed,” she said. “Come to forums like this. Check out what they’re doing on the Internet and cell phones. Know who their friends are. And just talk with your children on a regular basis.”
There is now no legal definition of “sexting” and nationwide debates center around whether to and how to prosecute for the act. In Connecticut, a person who distributes three or more photos of someone under 16 engaged in a sex act—the federal law is anyone under 18—can be prosecuted on felony child pornography charges with a mandatory minimum sentence of one year in prison. That person would also have to register as a sex offender for at least 10 years.
Erin McLoud, a counselor at the Rape Crisis Center of Milford, said that added to legal ramifications are feelings of guilt, shame, and embarrassment for victims.
“Remember that once they are on the Internet, you no longer own those images and anyone can access them,” she said.