Paula Murray

Melissa Letarte

By Paula Murray and Melissa Letarte

Gone are the days of old fashioned note passing and phone calls to a crush on a rotary telephone. In today’s technological society, our youth now experience flirting, communicating and dating in a very different and sometimes dangerous way.

Since the invention of smartphones, a person has the ability to snap a picture and send it to people in a matter of seconds. And, once you hit send, what happens to that picture is no longer in your control.

Although most photos sent are innocent, some teens are now engaging in “sexting,” where they send sexually explicit messages, photos or images of oneself to others via technological devices like a computer, tablet, smartwatch or, most commonly, a cell phone. Often teens will use social media accounts or sites such as Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, Skype, Tumblr, Whisper, Omegle, Meet Me, Kik, YikYak or Askfm.

You may be wondering why teens are sending sexts and there are a number of reasons. Often times, sexts are sent as a joke, as a way of seeking attention, a way of flirting or as a way to become popular or cool. They often feel pressured by peers because “everyone is doing it” and, because of that, sexting is becoming a normalized behavior. Teens just don’t see anything wrong with it.

Sexting however, can have detrimental effects on teens, especially if sexts are forwarded without permission. When that happens, those teens often fall victim to sexual harassment at school and online. The harassment can lead to feelings of anger, depression, illness (physical and mental), self-isolation or humiliation, and can lead to cyberbullying and, unfortunately, self-injurious behavior or even suicide.

Not only can sexting be harmful socially, emotionally and physically to teens, but before they send a sext, teens should understand that once that photo is sent, anyone can be in possession of it and they no longer have control over who sees it. That could possibly include future college representatives or employers.

What teens and parents often times do not know is that sexting in Maine is illegal. Under Maine law anyone — regardless of their age — who creates, distributes or possesses an image of a minor engaged in a sexually explicit act may be prosecuted under the state’s child pornography laws. According to the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department, there are many different laws that could be broken when sexting, all depending upon age, age difference, content of photos, etc.

More specific information regarding the laws can be found at: http://legislature.maine.gov/legis/statutes/17-A/title17-Ach12sec0.html

Parents may be thinking “not my child,” but the statistics show that sexting is a growing problem among Maine teens. According to the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, one in four teens have received a sext and one in seven have sent a sext. The issue then becomes once the sext is sent, who has that photo and what will they do with it?

MECASA reports that 12 percent of Maine teens have forwarded a sext without consent and 8.5 percent of teens say they have had a sext forwarded without their consent. The Franklin County Sheriff’s Department reports that 15 percent of Maine teens say they have sent nude images to people they’ve never met.

Parents may be asking what can they do to prevent a teen from sexting. Parents can perform random phone checks, have full access to passwords for social media accounts and do occasional inspections. Parents can also set limits on social media use in order to reduce the incidences of sexting. Setting limits such as no cell phones at the dinner table, cell phones turned off at certain times of the night and no cell phones during family time or during school hours can greatly decrease the risks your teen take with sexting.

Parents should also talk to their teens about the laws and consequences with regard to sexting, and advise them to seek help from a trusted adult as quickly as possible. Parents should also communicate with school administrators and/or law enforcement if they are made aware of a teen’s involvement with sexting.

For more information regarding teens and sexting, contact a local sexual assault agency or call SAPARS’ 24-hour helpline at 1-800-871-7741.

Paula Murray is Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services educator/advocate, serving Franklin County. Melissa Letarte is SAPARS Sexual Assault Response Team coordinator, also serving Franklin County.


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