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When Sexting And Shame Come To Middle School

quinn.anya via flickr

In the last month, students from an Anne Arundel County middle school have used cell phones and social media to distribute nude images of their classmates, causing parents to turn a more attentive eye to their kids’ internet and cell phone use.

Meanwhile, county police say they have investigated the incident but that no one will be charged.  But some of the students involved are left to defend themselves amid an intense climate of rumors, humiliation, and fear.

“Meghan,” who asked we not use her real name, sips a vanilla milkshake in a coffee shop near her school.  She fidgets with her sleeves and leans forward to discuss middle school sex, cyber-sharing, and “sexting” –sharing nude or semi-nude images via an electronic device.

She’s friends with several girls who sent photos of themselves topless to various boys in their school.  The boys sent the photos to others via text message and someone posted them to an Instagram page.  The Instagram page that contained the initials of their school, Chesapeake Bay Middle, and referred to the girls as “hoes” or “thots” which stands for “that hoe over there."

Meghan says some of the girls wanted to impress boys they liked. Or they thought they were sending the photos to their boyfriends, but instead, she says, “my whole school was showed the pictures and they were put on an Instagram page.”

Some of the girls were manipulated into sending the photographs.  Meghan says one friend was pressured to send nude photographs by boys who threatened to spread sexually-laced rumors if she didn’t.

Meghan shows the photos. One is of a bare-breasted girl from the neck down.  It has a black strip running across the neck with the word “Happy?” Meghan explains. “See, it says 'Happy?' because the boys were pressuring her."

Meghan says after the incident, which set off a social media firestorm among parents, one of the girls became suicidal and another was stalked. “She was telling me how one kid in high school was telling her he was going to rape her."

The fallout continues. She says the girls get called names and lose friends, yet the boys gain friends.

The Instagram page has been taken down, but Meghan says screen shots have been distributed by both the boys in her class and the girls.  She says the girls will “gang up on other girls for the pictures they send.  They tell other people about it – people who don’t know about it. The girls are mean."

Caroline Knorr, the parenting editor at Common Sense Media, a nonpartisan media group, says this kind of public humiliation has a name. It’s called “slut-shaming.” “You share inappropriate photos of other people and then you isolate and basically bully and humiliate that person,” she says.

It’s the kind of vilification Knorr has seen in national stories from Silicon Valley, CAto Steubenville, OH. She says she’s seen it in middle schools and high schools and that she would “encourage parents to talk to their sons and daughters about what’s going on there and how to stand up for victims of these crimes.”

Studies vary, but somewhere between eight percent and 19 percent of kids younger than 18 have sent sexting messages.  The potential for those sexts to cause serious harm is high.

Meghan says there’s a lot of pressure at her school to have sex – and it’s been there since the sixth grade. She says a lot of girls want to act more mature or feel pressure to please others. “Everyone tells me when you’re in high school, it gets a lot better.  I hope so,” she says, optimistically.