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Nude photos sent on phones coming back to haunt students

By Sally Voth - svoth@nvdaily.com

The teenage years can be a tumultuous period of wanting to fit in, living in the moment and behaving impulsively. Add technology to that heady mix and the repercussions of bad decisions can haunt a young person far longer than ever before.

Just last month, a student at Peter Muhlenberg Middle School was charged with several counts of possessing child pornography for sharing with other middle-schoolers nude pictures a 13-year-old girl had sent him on her cell phone.

Sadly, it wasn't an isolated incident, according to Shenandoah County Sheriff Timothy C. Carter. His office has dealt with five such "sexting" cases in the past few months. Most involve photos of girls.

"We believe that it's a lot more prevalent than what's been reported," Carter said.

There's even been a case where photos of a sex act were taken, he said. Most, though, have involved a naked picture that is only meant to be seen by the model's boyfriend.

When the young couple breaks up, sometimes that private photo becomes all too public, Carter said.

"There seems to be this attitude that this photo is something that goes away once I send it to someone," he said. "In reality, it's not going away. It's creating a record."

Stonewall Jackson High School Principal Mike Dorman said students are supposed to keep cell phones turned off during the school day. If a staff member catches a student using a phone, it's confiscated and brought to his office.

While Dorman has never come across explicit photos on any phones brought to his office at Stonewall, he did while principal at Strasburg High School. He said he only investigated the phones if he had good reason to be suspicious.

"What I did in the past, I've called the parent and had them come in and I showed the parent what's on the cell phone, and knock on wood, the parents have been very cooperative and appreciative and took the cell phone and said, 'I will take care of this,'" Dorman said. "More often than not, when I do share that with parents, they're very surprised and taken aback."

Elizabeth Meyer, an education and youth culture professor specializing in gender and sexuality issues at Concordia College in Montreal, has written a book about this very issue called "Gender, Bullying, and Harassment."

Teenagers seek validation from their peers, Meyer said in a telephone interview.

"Popularity is almost 100 percent based on how desirable you are to the boys in your school," she said.

Girls have always tried to capture boys' attention, said Meyer, who has taught high school in the United States.

In earlier times, this could be through flirting or passing notes. "Then it would end in that interaction, but now that we have this digital medium where things can be forwarded and passed and shared in their original form," a girl's private interaction with a boy becomes public, she said.

Boys share naked pictures girls send them because they are trying to show others "how cool they are," according to Meyer. Girls who see explicit pictures of another girl may forward them on to bully and harass her, she said.

While at the same time girls want to be seen as desirable, they fear being labeled promiscuous, Meyer said.

"Girls are seeking that sexual approval of boys, but within the core group of girls, it's something that you can be faulted for," Meyer said. "It's such an insidious social culture in high school.

"Sexting is now this kind of thing. It's a way that you're not actually engaging in sexual acts."

But, she said, the photos are a way a girl can show her attractiveness.

And teenagers are not known for thinking far ahead about their actions.

"They don't see the long-term consequences of their act," Meyer said. "They think that this is going to be a private act. Then, they're humiliated and bullied and harassed for what they thought was going to be private, intimate."

In Meyer's blog posted Dec. 16 on www.psychologytoday.com, she writes of two teenage girls who committed suicide after being bullied when provocative photos of them were passed around.

The suicide of an 18-year-old in Cincinnati came after high school graduation.

"She sort of managed to survive and endure the day-to-day harassment while she was in school," Meyer said. "Bullying and harassment has this really [immense] cumulative effect. For this young girl, it's possible that she really couldn't help herself heal from that really intensely scarring experience of being so publicly humiliated, sexually and socially. The harassment was really severe and persistent."

It is possible for a young person to get over the trauma of having her naked pictures on display for everyone.

"As a young woman, it's one of those sort of coping strategies of learning from your past mistakes and coming to peace with it," Meyer said.

While they might not be proud of their decision to send the photos in the first place, they can reclaim pride in their bodies, she said, and "learn to show that pride in appropriate ways."


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