April 15, 2009 -- Sex easily and quickly integrated itself into the digital age; and now the teen trend of "sexting" -- where a user sends sexually explicit images or messages via text on a cell phone -- has parents struggling for a way to address the situation.
"We're seeing 14, 15 and 16-year-olds and up are very commonly sharing naked pictures or sexual pictures of themselves," said Internet safety expert Parry Aftab, of Wired Safety. "We're talking about kids who are too young to wear bras who are posing in them, and then topless and then actually engaged in sex or even in masturbation. So we are seeing a lot of kids who are sexually active."
There's nothing coy about this 21st century amorous pursuit. Children as young as 12, who aren't sexually active, are sending explicit, provocative and even pornographic images to their peers.
"It's all about immediacy for them, and it's so much about, they're building their hormones and sexuality," said educator Dawn Russell. "It's so much about getting the opposite sex."
Aftab is concerned at how widespread the problem of sexting has become.
"We found that 44 percent of the high school boys that we have polled have seen at least one naked picture of a female classmate, and the boys are sharing their pictures too," Aftab said.
The results of this sexual file sharing can be devastating, as in the case of Jessica Logan.
Logan, a Cincinnati high school student, sent a nude cell phone photo to her boyfriend. But after their relationship ended, he sent the image to 100 students at four different schools.
Afterward, she endured a barrage of harsh treatment.
"She was harassed. She was called names -- filthy names," said Jessica's mother Cynthia Logan. "Things are thrown at her. Her reaction to all this was -- when she would come home -- anger, snapping. And I would ask her what was wrong and she wouldn't… she wasn't divulging everything, just that she was having a hard time."
Jessica tried to combat what was happening to her by speaking out about her personal experience. With her voice disguised and her image obscured, she spoke to a local television station about her ordeal.
"She said to me it was the stupidest thing that she did," Cynthia Logan said. "She said, 'I do realize I made a mistake and I wanted to talk to the parents.' And she started to cry."
Jessica Logan Commits Suicide
The fallout from her sexting experience proved too much for the 18-year-old to handle. Just two months after her interview with a Cincinnati television station, Cynthia Logan found that her daughter hanged herself in her bedroom in July 2008.
Now Cynthia Logan has made it her mission to educate people about the dangers of sexting, using her daughter's tale as an anecdote.
"The challenge is, if you see someone that has a nude photo, you walk up to that person and you say that, 'You know, why don't you just delete that photo instead of spreading it?'" she said.
This week, Ohio legislators, with the support of Jessica's parents, introduced a bill that would make sexting a misdemeanor for minors.
A Town Hall Meeting
While Jessica's outcome is tragic, her situation isn't unique.
In Massachusetts, three junior high school students were arrested for allegedly distributing a sex video with their cell phones, and in New Jersey, a 14-year-old girl was charged with distribution and possession of child pornography after posting nude photos of herself on Myspace.com.
"Good Morning America" held a town hall meeting April 8 with students ranging from seventh grade to high school seniors to learn more about how sexting affects children. The group also had some parents, including Cynthia Logan and Aftab.
Aftab said children now deal with so many pieces of technology that parents often don't know all their uses.
Aftab had the parents do an Internet search of their children's names in quotation marks to see what was posted. She also had them search for the children's cell phone numbers online and suggested downloading Google desktop, a free program that helps find every video and picture on a computer.
After the parents' searches, they met up again with Aftab to discuss their findings.
"I found some inappropriate things," said town hall attendee David Zrike. "Unfortunately, some images, not of my children, thank goodness, but of other children ... One particular story that was disturbing -- at a party, an inappropriate picture was taken of a child who flashed herself, and it was passed around the school and it's been out there for awhile. So that was very surprising."
"I talked to two of my children -- 16-year-old and a 19-year-old," said Karen Stires, who also joined in the discussion. "They shared with me a very inappropriate picture that was taken on a cell phone with a 16-year-old girl, and she was very intimate with the boy. The picture was shared with all the kids in the private school."
Another parent, Craig Wellence, said he found things posted online about his kids "surprising."
A 15-year-old girl named Ashley Garcia explained at the town hall meeting why she decided to send a nude photo of herself to her then boyfriend.
"He had kept asking me for [it]," the Humble, Texas, resident said of the incident last year. "First, I was kind of like, 'No.' Well then, the further along we got on in the relationship, you know, I thought I really cared about him, and I figured he cared about me, too."
Ashley, who was only 14 at the time, sent her boyfriend the nude image.
"I felt like there was love that I had never had," said Ashley. "It didn't really register in my mind, like, what I was doing. And it was just like common sense. I wasn't thinking about what I was doing before I sent it."
That image made the rounds, and eventually, a male friend of Ashley's sent the picture to her mother, Patricia Nordin.
"I had asked him, you know, 'Why did you do it?' And he just said, 'You shouldn't have ever broken up with me,'" Ashley said.
Nordin said in a telephone interview after the town hall that her daughter has endured some teasing -- mostly from girls -- but has handled herself well.
In fact, Ashley was moving on with her life when, on April 4, someone took the explicit image of her, used it to create a Myspace profile and invited all her friends to see it.
Nordin now is in the process of tracking down the culprit.
But Ashley said sexting is "a big thing" at her school and added she's heard that even eighth-graders are sending the provocative message.
"It gets really young, and I'm guessing it's just the role models that… the students that are younger, they realize, 'Oh look, you know, they're doing it. I'm gonna be cool and do it too,'" Ashley said.
The Legal Downside to Sexting
Sexting has become so rampant that those who pass along sexually suggestive images of minors are being prosecuted.
Phillip Alpert discovered just how real the consequences of sexting could be after he was branded as a sex offender and kicked out of college when he distributed compromising photos of his ex-girlfriend.
"I was the stupid kid that sent the pictures across e-mail," said Alpert, who had dated his girlfriend for about two-and-a-half years. "I was very upset. I wasn't thinking. I had sent a few of the pictures that she had sent to me. She'd taken of herself and sent to me. I sent them through -- to the recipients in her e-mail address."
Alpert, 19, was convicted of sending child pornography and served several days in jail. He is now out on probation, but he was thrown out of college, and as a consequence of his conviction on child pornography charges, his name was added to Florida's sex offender registry.
"If I violate the probation, I go to prison for a very long time," he said.
A violation includes contacting his now ex-girlfriend, even if it's for an apology.
It was a huge mistake," Alpert said. "I understand how it hurts."
Alpert's lawyer said his story is just one of the many examples of how tweens and teens use technology to vent.
"We give these kids all this technology, and they use it to communicate everything -- love, hate, anger," said Alpert's lawyer Lawrence Walters.
Cynthia Logan said it will take a coalition of parents and schools to help kids learn about this danger.
"It's really educating the schools, and they should have assemblies," she said.
She said she would have rather seen Alpert put on probation for a couple years and do a presentation in front of young peers instead of being labeled a sex offender..
"That, to me, is much more productive," she said.