After his former girlfriend taunted him, Phillip Alpert remembered the nude photos she e-mailed to him while they were dating. He took revenge with...

Share story

ORLANDO, Fla. — After his former girlfriend taunted him, Phillip Alpert remembered the nude photos she e-mailed to him while they were dating.

He took revenge with an electronic blast — e-mailing the photos of the 16-year-old girl to more than 70 people, including her parents, grandparents and teachers.

Three days later, Alpert, then 18, was charged with transmitting child pornography. Alpert today is serving five years of probation for the crime, and he is registered as a sex offender — a label he must carry at least until he is 43.

“I didn’t know how bad of a decision it was,” Alpert, now 19, said recently at his MetroWest apartment. “I don’t think it’s fair.”

Alpert is one of many Americans who are being charged with felonies and getting sentenced as sex offenders for doing something their friends do all the time, unaware of potential criminal charges.

One national study found that as many as 20 percent of teens have sent or posted nude or seminude photos of themselves in what has become known as “sexting.” Young teens are using high-tech phones to text, post or e-mail racy photos — technically child porn. Most do it for fun.

But getting caught means being kicked off sports teams and facing expulsion from school. Others are going to jail.

“It’s become a troubling trend,” said Marisa Nightingale, senior adviser for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, which conducted the study. “Since the beginning of time, teens have flirted with each other and pushed the envelope. But 10 to 15 years ago, it didn’t go global in 30 seconds.”

Lawrence Walters, an Orlando attorney who practices First Amendment and Internet law, has been following the sexting trend.

“It’s a new phenomena,” Walters said. “Kids shouldn’t be doing this — shouldn’t be engaging in this type of behavior. But using these harsh criminal laws for child pornography is a bit of overkill.”

Just last month, a 15-year-old Pennsylvania girl was charged with creating child pornography for sending images of herself via MySpace to a 27-year-old man.

Also last month, a Brevard County, Fla., teen was jailed after forwarding a cellphone picture of his 16-year-old ex-girlfriend’s naked breasts to another teen. The girlfriend allowed the photo to be taken while the two were dating, police said.

Bryce Dixon, 18, told investigators he sent the photo because he thought the girl had cheated on him with his best friend. He said he knew sending the photo would make her mad.

A judge set Dixon’s bond at $140,000 for charges he faced, including transmission of child pornography. Dixon, who remains in jail, and his family declined to talk to the Orlando Sentinel. In an interview aired Tuesday on NBC’s “Today” show, he said he made a stupid decision.

The consequences of sexting are unpredictable.

An Ohio teen hanged herself in May after her ex-boyfriend forwarded nude photos of her, sharing them with other high-school girls.

Even teen celebrities have been caught in sexting scandals.

In September 2007, nude photos of Disney’s “High School Musical” star Vanessa Hudgens surfaced on the Internet. The photos were alleged to be self-portraits taken with Hudgens’ cellphone and sent to her boyfriend, co-star Zac Efron. She later apologized for the photos, according to numerous news reports.

Nightingale, with the advocacy group, said such cases should put teens and parents on alert.

“If that guy who you used to trust all of a sudden shares it, you have no control over it,” Nightingale said. “If you regret it and change your mind, there is nothing you can do about it, or very little you can do about it.”

For Alpert, he never asked for the photos that got him in trouble in 2007. He met the girl at a church function in 2005 and dated her off and on for about 2 ½ years, he said. At one point the girl took nude photos and videos of herself and sent them to his e-mail.

He tried using them against his ex-girlfriend with the mass e-mail after she called him and said she was much happier without him.

Although Alpert was charged with transmission of child pornography, the girl never was in legal trouble. She did not respond to requests for interviews.

Since his arrest and conviction, Alpert’s life has been difficult.

Classmates at Ocoee High School teased him unmercifully, sending him into a depression that caused him to miss class and avoid his graduation last year. He lost friends because “they just don’t want to be friends with a sex-offender kid,” Alpert said.

He said he was kicked out of Valencia Community College in September because he’s a sex offender. Neighbors have knocked on his door after finding him in the sex-offender database and asked him what he’s done.

Alpert’s mother moved out of state after he graduated, but the conditions of his probation don’t allow him to leave Orange County without permission. He can’t live with his father in Ocoee because the house is too close to a school, Alpert said.

Every Wednesday he attends a class for sex offenders where he is joined by people who have raped and molested children. He’s not like them, Alpert said, but the law says he is.

His advice to other teens tempted by sexting: “Don’t do it. It’s stupid.”