CHICAGO – A video of high school boys laughing about watching the rape of a “dead drunk” teenage girl who “deserved to be peed on” drew a horde of reporters to a small Ohio town for a trial Wednesday.
While the video and a photo of two boys lifting the unconscious 16-year-old girl by her hands and feet were shocking and extreme, the dangerous combination of teens, alcohol and cameras was far from unique.
Thousands of teenagers have found themselves in social hell after sexually explicit or other humiliating pictures and videos spread through social media like wildfire.
The urge to document embarrassing, malicious — or even potentially criminal — moments is hard to resist for teenagers growing up in the digital age with a smartphone about them at all times.
It is a complex problem for parents, educators and police, who have to draw a line between youthful dalliances and crimes such as extortion, harassment or the production of child pornography.
Most of the images start out as a moment of youthful experimentation meant to be shared with a girlfriend, boyfriend or crush. Others are meant to be a joke.
Then somebody hits send and the echo chamber of teenage gossip is magnified by the power of the Internet to produce an overwhelming tide of insults and abuse.
And since the images are online forever, the victimization never really ends.
“We have 16-, 17-, 18-year-old girls telling us, ‘I’m contemplating suicide. I can’t get my photos off this site,’ ” said James McGibney, founder of BullyVille.com, which aims to help bullied teens and adults.
One in six children in the United States aged 12 to 17 have received a sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude photo or video of someone they know, a recent study by the Pew Research Center found.
That number goes up to one in three teens aged 16 and 17, even though only 2 percent of the children admitted to having ever sent a suggestive photo of themselves.
“The key thing to remember about this is it doesn’t take that many people in a community to send these images for them to be widely shared,” said Amanda Lenhart, Pew’s director of teens and technology research.
This can make growing up a lot harder for the current generation than it was for their parents.
“In the past, an indiscretion at a party, it would have been viewed by very few people. It could die down, be covered up, you make your apologies and go on with your life,” Lenhart said.
“Now, it can be hard to escape your past.”
The Stubenville, Ohio rape case was certainly not a youthful indiscretion. But the fact that the boys shared the pictures they took after pulling off the girl’s clothes and that the story went viral will undoubtedly make it harder for her to recover.
“There can be some serious impacts from the severe cases where there’s been both a sexual victimization and on top of that the images are shared,” said Patti Agatston, coauthor of “Cyber Bulling: Bullying in the Digital Age.”
“You could be dealing with some pretty serious psychological issues where someone may develop severe anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder.”
At a hearing in November, the girl’s mother testified that she had been ostracized at school and still cried herself to sleep as a result of the Aug. 11 incident.
These kinds of painful images do, however, help bring problems to light and make it easier to punish those who cross the line.
Assistant Ohio Attorney General Marianne Hemmeter said in opening statements Wednesday that the two high school football players accused of rape treated the girl like a “toy” and repeatedly degraded her by sending the photos to their friends.
Defense attorneys dispute the prosecution’s assertion that she was too drunk to consent and insist the boys’ actions do not constitute rape.
A recent study by the Crimes Against Children Research Center estimated that police investigated nearly 3,500 cases of youth-produced sexual images during 2008 and 2009.
Two-thirds of those cases involved “aggravating” circumstances such as “adults interacting sexually with underage youth or young people engaging in blackmail or other criminal or malicious behavior, or recklessly circulating images.”
The good news is that most of the images — 63 percent — were distributed by cellphone only and did not reach the Internet.