MTV's sexting show to air stark message for teens

Program offers teens a dose of reality on the consequences of sharing nude photos.

Larry Magid
Larry Magid
Larry Magid is a technology journalist and an Internet safety advocate. He's been writing and speaking about Internet safety since he wrote Internet safety guide "Child Safety on the Information Highway" in 1994. He is co-director of ConnectSafely.org, founder of SafeKids.com and SafeTeens.com, and a board member of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Larry's technology analysis and commentary can be heard on CBS News and CBS affiliates, and read on CBSNews.com. He also writes a personal-tech column for the San Jose Mercury News. You can e-mail Larry.
3 min read

While it doesn't break any new ground, MTV's half-hour special, "Sexting In America: When Privates Go Public," is a good reminder for teens that taking and sending nude pictures is never a good idea.

The show will air at 9 p.m. PST and EST on Sunday--Valentine's Day.

The program, which is aimed at teens, explores the consequences--to one's emotions, reputation, and legal standing--in posing for, taking, distributing, or forwarding nude pictures by cell phone or computer.

Ally, now 19, had her nude picture sent around school when she was 16. MTV

The show features 19-year-old Ally, who was 16 when she sent a nude picture to an ex-boyfriend who said he'd get back together with her if she did so. The boy, in Ally's words, "ended up sending it to everybody in his contact list" and soon Ally's picture was all over school. Ally said she sent the photo because "having him ask me for the picture made me feel wanted again."

Instead she felt betrayed, especially after the reaction from classmates. "The harassment just started immediately," she told MTV. "Kids in my school were really brutal and terrible to me in the hallway and they would call me whore, slut, 'ho'."

Ally, now in college, has a new boyfriend "who doesn't like the fact that there is a nude picture of me still out there, but he's completely understanding about it." She told MTV that she still bears scars from this incident. "The picture is always there in the back of my mind," she said.

Phillip Albert, now 20, has faced other consequences. When he was 17, his 16-year-old girlfriend sent him naked pictures. A month after he turned 18, he and his girlfriend got into a fight and after getting a nasty phone message from her in the middle of the night, he opened up the message with her photo and pressed the "little select all button" followed by the send button.

Phillip Albert was put on sex offender registry for sending a nude picture. MTV

As a result, the girl's picture was sent to over 70 people including "friends, teachers, parents, and grandparents." Phillip was arrested for distribution of child pornography, put on five years probation, and required to register on the public sex offender list. He was kicked out of college, can't find a job, and can't live with his father because his dad lives too close to a high school. As a registered sex offender, Phillip isn't allowed to live near a school, playground, or a church. Unless his lawyer is successful in getting to court to take him off the list, he could remain on the registered sex offender list until he's in his 40s.

The MTV program draws on a survey conducted by the TV network and the Associated Press last year that found "29 percent (of young people 14 to 24) report receiving messages 'with sexual words or images' by text or on the Internet." Confirming Ally's story, the study found that "61 percent of those who have sent a naked photo or video of themselves have been pressured by someone else to do so at least once."

In this study, 1 in 10 youth said they shared shared a naked image of themselves, but a subsequent study conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that "4 percent of cell-owning teens ages 12-17 say they have sent sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images or videos of themselves to someone else via text messaging." Pew reported that "15 percent say they have received such images of someone they know via text message."

The Pew data, which covers only minors--not young adults--indicates that the practice may not be as widespread as MTV and other studies have suggested. But even 4 percent represents a significant number of teens who have sent nude images of themselves.

If you have a teen in your life, it's probably worth 30 minutes of your and your teen's time to watch this show together on Sunday night. If your teen has ever been on the fence about taking, sending, or forwarding a sexting message, the show could provide some incentive to make them think twice.

"Sexting in America" is associated with A Thin Line, an MTV-sponsored site with information on sexting, cyberbullying, and other teen issues.

ConnectSafely.org, the Internet safety nonprofit I work with, also offers advice for avoiding sexting.

Here is the "Sexting in America" trailer: