Rural areas deal with teen sexting

Forty years ago, Presidential candidate, Jimmy Carter shocked the nation by telling Playboy Magazine that he had lusted after women who were not his wife. His declaration was a radical departure from his squeaky clean image as a peanut farmer from tiny Plains, Georgia, where he taught Sunday school at the local Baptist Church.

Today, former President Carter still teaches Sunday school in the same church in Sumter County. But hardly anyone in this rural part of southwest Georgia turns to Playboy for sexual turn-ons. This is especially true for teens, because more explicit and exciting stuff pops up on their cell phones all the time.

Sexting – the practice of taking a sexually explicit photo of yourself and sending it to someone else via cell phone – is popular with teens everywhere.

But the health risks may be great in rural areas like Sumter and Lee Counties, which are adjacent and share a school system. The two counties cover about 493 square miles and one quarter of the population is under age 18.

Teens who live in Sumter and Lee Counties are bused to one of two high schools, traveling a web of two-lane blacktops connecting six small towns with scattered farms and settlements.

None of these two towns offer much in the area of entertainment, and kids who aren’t caught up in athletics and after-school activities may be miles from their friends, bored and easier to flirt by phone.

Teenagers who send sext messages are five times more likely to engage in sexual activities than those who do no share risqué cell phone images, according to a 2014 study led by Brown University psychologist Dr. Christopher Houck. This puts them at increased risk for unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, the researchers reported in The American Academy of Pediatrics.

For girls age 15-19, the birth rate in Sumter County is 58 per 1,000, making it 93rd out of Georgia’s 159 counties in terms of preventing teen births. Lee County does better, ranking 23rd on the county list with a teen birth rate of 33 per 1,000.

The STD rates for both boys and girls ages 15-19 in these two counties are relatively high for the populations.  Lee County is 38 in ranking with an STD rate of 16.7 per 1,000. And Sumter County surpasses Lee with a rate of 54.3 per 1,000 and ranked at 143 of 159.

The combination of ubiquitous cell phones and living in rural area carriers another risk as well: provocative photos are easily shared and can go viral very fast. This means that sexual predators, as well as the cute boy in history class, can see them. And the predator may be more likely to follow up by telling the girl how beautiful she is.

Amy Boney is a forensic interviewer and director of the Lighthouse Children’s Advocacy Center in Americus, the county seat for Sumter County.

“All of our teen cases were sexual abuse cases last year,” Boney said. “Last calendar year, one third of our teen cases involved digital media.”

In mid-March, Boney interviewed a 14-year-old girl who was getting messages from an adult male who wanted pictures of her. She at first said no, but he was persistent.

In such situations, the girls often “feel grown up getting this type of attention from older guys,” Boney said.

The man in this case probably saw photo that the girl had sent a friend or heartthrob, not realizing how fast they could travel in cyberspace.

Lee County Sheriff’s Deputy Tommy Goodwin is an expert on the risks that sexting can bring. He speaks so often to Lee County school children that he’s known on these campuses as “the Facebook Police.” He explains that everything they send to their friends goes to the digital cloud and anyone can access it.

Goodwin specializes in internet crimes against children, and he’s part of the a national reporting system run by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The center monitors images shared in the cloud, and when they see sexually explicit pictures of pre-pubescent child or young teen, they find where it originated and contact the closest internet crime expert.

Goodwin recalls last summer when he received a report that a girl “uploaded 32 photos of herself. Thirty-two images in one summer.” He said. “Do you know what’s wrong with her now? She’s pregnant and she’s 14 years old.”

At one time or another, about 20 percent of all teens are asked to send sexy photos on the internet or subjected to messages describing what some stranger would like to do to them.

Boney said that boys as well as girls can be sexually solicited online, and this “sexploitation” doesn’t necessarily end when the kids leave their hometown for college.

College women are asked to send explicit photographs more often than their male classmates, and they are also more troubled by such requests, according to a study by Dr. Maria Len-Rios, an associate professor of public relations at the University of Georgia. And they often comply.

“It is so important at that age to want to be liked and feel important,” Len-Rios said.

Despite the serious health consequences associated with sexting, unprotected sex and contraception gets short shift in the abstinence-based education, an approach used in the Sumter and Lee County schools

Yet teens hear plenty about the hazards of smoking and the importance of having a designated driver, years before they are old enough to buy cigarettes or alcohol.

Why are these topics emphasized? “Because we know some of them are going to do it,” Boney said. “Why don’t we do the same thing for those who are going to engage in sexual activity?”

By Christina Kirchner

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