Amid the excitement about new mobile digital technologies and how young people in America are making use of them, there's one trend that's causing a lot of concern. It's called "sexting."

A combination of the words "sex" and "text," the term refers to the act of sending sexually explicit text messages - or pictures of oneself - instantly over a mobile phone. Sometimes these images wind up posted on the Internet. 

Eighteen-year-old Mel (not her real name) is a regular sexter. She says she often exchanges sexually explicit messages - and pictures - with her female partner as a way of maintaining intimacy.

"Sometimes sexting - sending pictures of oneself - can strengthen the relationship," she says.

Mel says that sexting also helps her and her partner maintain their relationship when they are away from one another.

Sexting widespread among teens, 20-somethings

But whether sexting is regarded as a positive trend or a negative one depends on who you talk to.

 Dr. Susan Lipkins is a New York author and psychologist who has been in practice for 25 years. She recently conducted an online survey of 323 anonymous volunteers to explore their attitudes toward the sexting experience. 
"Basically, sexters feel very positively towards sexting, whereas non-sexters think it's a terrible idea," she says. 

According to Lipkins, almost 66 percent of the survey population is sexting - sending pictures of themselves, or somebody else that they know, that are semi-nude, or totally nude, or sexually provocative between people they know.

"People [aged] 13 to 19 are actively involved in sexting, but those [between] 20 to 26 [years old] are even more involved," she says.

Images sometimes end up in the wrong hands

But as experts like Dr. Lipkins and sexters like Mel are aware, private images intended for a friend or partner sometimes end up on the Internet on social networking sites where anyone can view them.

Mel describes a case where a couple of male schoolmates of hers received an unsolicited sext message.  What they did with that message got them into serious trouble.

"It was actually a video of this girl stripping. They did not want the message. They did not ask for the message. The girl just sent it to them."

Mel says her friends posted the video on the Facebook social networking site, where many people could view it. The file was downloaded repeatedly and shared widely across the Internet.

"The school found out and almost expelled the boys because the boys were 18. The girl was a ninth grader [about 14 years old]." 

Trend reflects changing attitudes toward sex

Some states have been prosecuting underage sexters for minor-to-minor exchanges of sexually explicit materials, a punishable offense under existing child pornography statutes. But Dr. Lipkins believes that's going too far.

"I don't think young people should be prosecuted, and I think we have to look at sexting as a symptom of something greater, and that would be the current sexual revolution," she says.

Lipkins believes society needs to accept that sexting reflects a shift in sexual values among the younger generation.

"I think the nature of relationships is changing dramatically. I think that young people believe that casual sex is not only OK but is preferred. They don't actually want to have a relationship. They want to hook up, and I believe that sexting is a reflection of their attitude towards personal space, towards ownership and towards sex."

Lipkins suggests that one way adults can help young people deal with this trend is to make sure they understand human sexuality and what a healthy sexual relationship entails. But Mel - the young sexter - says adults, too, need better information about the sexual practices their children consider "normal."

"To educate them on, 'This is what's happening. This is going on, and this is what you can talk to your kids about,' and just like you talk to your kids about drugs, talk to your kids about this."

Mel adds that there's a growing awareness among young people like herself that one should use common sense when sending - and receiving - sext messages.

"Personally, after I receive a picture, I delete the picture, and I know that my partner does the same thing. This is what we've established to make sure that neither of our pictures end up anywhere else."

The role of technology providers in sexting

But what about the cell phone companies and Internet service providers whose video-friendly instant messaging technologies have made sexting possible in the first place?  Should they share some of the responsibility for limiting the potential damage sexting messages can do?  Psychologist Susan Lipkins believes they should.

"I'd like to have the cell phone companies do something. I'd like to have a pop-up screen right before you send a picture, and that pop-up screen would say, 'Are you sure you want to send this picture? Now? Later? Delete?'  And that little moment of thinking, of pause, will help people to consider whether they really want to send something that might be risky."

In the meantime, as the debate over sexting continues and digital technologies continue to improve, Lipkins says we simply need more information.

"I absolutely think that we need a whole lot more studies?I think we need way more understanding of this phenomenon and the relevant issues before we start doing too much."

Although the future of national anti-sexting laws is unclear, some state lawmakers are taking steps to curb the practice.  Under a bill introduced in the New Jersey legislature, minors caught sending sexually explicit photographs via their cell phones would not face criminal prosecution, but they would be required to participate in an educational program about the potentially severe legal and social consequences of sexting.