Children today are often so voracious and versed in the latest communications technology that they make their parents feel like Myles Standish and Betsy Ross. Three-fourths of young people between 12 and 17 now own cell phones, reports the Pew Internet and American Life Project. And get this: 87 percent of those who send text messages told researchers that they sleep with or next to their phones. Half of teens send 50 or more text messages a day, and one in three send more than 100, or more than 3,000 texts a month. By contrast, only 30 percent of teenagers talk on those caveman "land line" phones.
But all this cell-phone (not to mention Internet) usage carries new risks -- even new crimes.
Last year, the hot trend was sexting -- teenagers sending one another lascivious messages (and often nude or semi-nude photographs). If a teenage boy received a nude photo of a friend and e-mailed it to buddies or posted it on a Facebook or MySpace page, there was the very real possibility of being prosecuted for distributing child pornography.
Now there's a new and related crime in the courthouses. It's called "sextortion."
Federal prosecutors and child safety advocates are warning of an upswing in online sexual blackmail. Associated Press cited a case in Indianapolis where three teenage girls with a webcam yielded to online peer pressure to flash their breasts. A week later, one Indiana girl started getting threatening e-mails that her topless image would be sent to her friends on MySpace unless she posed for more explicit photos -- and even videos -- for him. This girl complied with his blackmail threats twice -- and then the police and federal officials stepped in and indicted a 19-year-old male in Maryland.
The victims might not even be in high school yet. The New Haven Register reported police received a complaint last November involving topless photos taken via webcam of a Connecticut girl "under 15 years old." A 17-year-old Canadian boy was arrested in Montreal for threatening to post pictures he took over a webcam connection, demanding the young girl perform sex acts in front of the camera or he would post her topless picture on Facebook.
Young men are now facing years in prison for this "sextortion." In Alabama, Jonathan Vance, 24, was sentenced to 18 years in prison in April after he confessed to sending threatening e-mails extorting nude photos from more than 50 young women in Alabama, Pennsylvania and Missouri. In Wisconsin, 18-year-old Anthony Stancl deceitfully posed as a girl on Facebook to trick high school classmates into sending him nude photos, which he then used to extort girls for sex. He received a 15-year sentence.
In California, federal officials say one 31-year-old man even stooped to remotely activating some girls' webcams without their knowledge and recorded them undressing or having sex.
Teenagers are obviously more vulnerable to blackmail because most parents would be shocked to learn their children are flashing their private parts on cell phones or Internet sites. One survey found 20 percent of teenagers and 33 percent of young adults aged 20 to 26 said they had sent or posted nude or semi-nude photos of themselves. AP quoted attorney Parry Aftab to sum it all up about this growing trend of online exhibitionism: "Kids are putting their head in the lion's mouth every time they do this."
How sad it is for teens today. Innocence is gone. It's impossible to avoid the omnipresence of sex in our popular culture, especially youth culture. It's one thing for teenagers to feel like they're sexually hyperactive. It's another for every executive making TV shows, movies and pop songs to multiply that thought endlessly to enrich themselves.
Even sexting is a trendy TV topic. Last season on the hit Fox show "Glee," one cheerleader boasted to another that her sex texts were impossibly hot, as if this kind of cellular titillation is what every cool cheerleader should be doing.
The entertainment industry -- including the social-media websites -- are forcing parents to develop a whole new sophistication, telling children that they should never submit to posing for anything that they wouldn't want parents, teachers and ministers to see on the Internet.
This "sextortion" trend is nastier than mere sexting because one momentary mistake by an otherwise moral child can lead her down a path from bending to peer pressure to involuntarily becoming an online sex slave. One mistake.