MADISON, Wis. - "Hardest Email to Write Ever."
That was the subject line to an email News 3 received at 3:07 a.m. earlier this year, and its contents are enough to scare any parent.
The email told the story of a teenage girl who had voluntarily sent a nude photo to a boyfriend before being manipulated into sending more images and the impact when the pictures were shared around her school.
Ironically, we are protecting the identity of the parents who feel unable to protect their daughter in a similar way. She's tried to commit suicide multiple times since the incident.
"It has destroyed our daughter. She has no self-worth. She has no self-esteem," her mother said. "I look in her eyes and I just see the pain, and you can't get in there to help her because it's all in her own mind."
It is a far too-common sight for Dr. Marcia Slattery, who runs the Anxiety Clinic at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She says she started seeing these types of cases a year or two ago, and the number of cases has grown exponentially since then.
"It can be devastating, and so many times, we'll have kids come in and say, 'I don't want to live. I want to kill myself. This is just too much. I can't go back out there,'" she said. "At that age, their coping resources and their ego strength, as we call it, is more limited."
The parents who wrote to us describe their daughter as a wonderful young woman with "a very soft heart." They talked about the dangers of the internet, about the permanency of what can be posted there and why they suggest limiting phone use and screen time. Still, they find themselves trying to navigate the emotional and physiological changes their teenager is going through.
"She has so much shame and guilt over it, and it tears us to the soul," her dad said. "You want your kids to be happy and healthy and love themselves, but when it goes this far, it's hard to handle."
Recent studies show anywhere from a third to more than half of all teenagers acknowledge sending or receiving a naked picture via text. However, Special Agent Dana Miller of Wisconsin's Internet Crimes Against Children unit says statistics are notoriously unreliable in this case because teenagers won't readily admit doing something they likely know they should not be doing.
The point she makes during her school presentations is that sending, receiving or sharing naked pictures of underage people is considered child pornography by law. A conviction for that could mean registration on a sex offender registry, which would limit work possibilities (such convictions can be found by a Human Resources Department doing a background check), or where you could live (convicted sex offenders are required to live particular distances away from a school or park might be required), or what you could do if you become a parent (unable to coach your kid's soccer team).
"We talk a lot about thinking twice and posting once," Miller said. "That stuff you're sending--even if you think it's just going to one person, even if you think it's a disappearing app or an anonymous app, it's not. The potential for that to stay out there or be captured or be shared is so, so great that it's just not worth the risk."
In the email sent to News 3, the parents wrote, "We are simply trying to do the best job we can." They're hoping by sharing their story, other parents will talk to their kids about the topic, follow the tips we've attached to this story and remain active parents. They think the mental health of other teenagers is at stake.
"I want parents to open their eyes to what's going on out there," the mother said. "You just have to be more than extraordinarily vigilant. You have to go a hundred more steps than you would normally go and you have to love your children through anything.
"It's heartbreaking to see her go through it. The hardest thing I have ever gone through in my entire life is watching my child slip away."
Wisconsin's Internet Crimes Against Children website offers a free podcast and resources for both parents and teenagers, and the Canadian Centre for Child Protection offers materials for both parties as well.
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