‘Sexting In America’ Explores Disturbing Digital Abuse Trends

MTV News special discusses tragic gay teen suicides and young people affected by sexting.

Whether it’s sending a taunting message about a rival or forwarding a racy pic to all of your friends, digital abuse can take many forms.

That was the message of MTV News’ half-hour special “Sexting in America: When Privates Go Public” , in which we took a closer look at the dangers of sexting and the serious repercussions for the people who send and receive naked pictures of peers on their mobile phones and other devices. A recent wave of suicides by youth who were reportedly taunted because of their sexuality, including the death of college student Tyler Clementi who took his own life after a roommate posted video online of Clementi in the midst of gay encounter, has prompted MTV to revisit the harmful consequences of digital abuse.

You met New Jersey teen Ally, whose world was turned upside down when a former boyfriend forwarded a private sext she’d sent him, leading to ridicule and taunting from her peers that lasted several years.

“It was one picture, and he sent it out to everybody in his address book,” the now-20-year-old told MTV News. “We were broken up, and I guess he did it to make himself seem cool. I never thought anybody else would see it. … It was an impulsive thing that I did.”

And you heard the story of Phillip Alpert , who sent out sexually explicit pictures of his underage teenage girlfriend when he was an 18-year-old senior, which led to his arrest on child-pornography charges. He was ordered to register as a sex offender, a status he could have for the next 20-plus years.

“I’ve actually had a lot of neighbors come to my door before … to check if it was safe for their kids to play around outside, with me here,” Alpert said in the show. “I’m extremely sorry for what I did, but the sex-offender thing, which is going to last until I’m 43, that’s overkill.”

Images taken of someone under the age of 18 can constitute child pornography, according to Parry Aftab, an Internet privacy and security lawyer. “If you take a picture, you can be accused of producing child pornography; if you send it to somebody, you can be accused of distributing child pornography; and if you keep a picture, you can be accused of possessing child pornography,” Aftab explained. “Anywhere along this chain of transmission of the images, you can be charged as a registered sex offender.”

You might expect your sext message to remain private, but nearly one in five sext recipients report that they have passed the images along to someone else, with more than half saying that they just assumed others would want to see them, followed by a desire to show off and boredom. According to an MTV poll, three in 10 young people reported that they’d been involved in some type of naked texting.

Sexting has made its way into pop culture through appearances on “90210″ and a recent Super Bowl ad featuring [movieperson id="333331"]Megan Fox[/movieperson] for Motorola. Perhaps the most famous celebrity case involved [artist id="1235716"]Fall Out Boy[/artist]‘s Pete Wentz, who has spoken about how much he regrets the 2006 leak of his full-frontal photos.

You also learned more about the tragic suicide of Clementi, a Rutgers University freshman who killed himself after a classmate filmed him during a gay sexual encounter and posted the footage online. Clementi was one of a few gay teens who have recently taken their own lives after being subjected to bullying and abuse. The deaths have prompted many celebs to blast cyberbullying and encourage gay youth to remain strong when faced with abuse of any kind. In addition, MTV has partnered with the Jed Foundation and actress Brittany Snow, with support from DoSomething.org, the Trevor Project, Reach Out, Active Minds and the Ad Council, to launch the Love Is Louder campaign to help spread messages of love and hope to teens who feel they might have run out of options.

If you receive a sext, delete it immediately, Aftab recommends. And keep in mind that once you take a photo on your phone, it never goes away. “It could be in a million places, and you never know who got a copy,” Aftab said. “If you take it on your phone and texted it, a copy exists with your cell phone carrier and on [the recipient's] phone. Maybe he e-mailed it to himself, so now it’s on his computer, and if he put it on an SD card and used it on his Xbox, now it’s there also. They’re also sometimes sold on the digital black market for use on underground Web sites where real child predators love to look at them.” If you’ve sent a sext, she suggests having a discussion with the recipient and then doing your best to delete all copies.

If you or someone you know is a victim of digital abuse, get help now. Experts believe education and dialogue are key to identifying and stopping the spread of digital abuse. Head to AThinLine.org to find ways you can increase national awareness about this issue and be a part of the solution.

For more information about Love Is Louder, visit the project’s Facebook page. You can join the conversation by uploading videos to Your.MTV.com, just like Brittany did, and by using the Twitter hashtag #loveislouder.

Head to Think.MTV.com to find a community where you, your friends and your favorite celebrities can get informed, get heard and take action on the issues that matter to you most.

Often guilty, never convicted. Serving 15 years to life at MTV News.