Say you’re a middle school principal who has just confiscated a cell phone from a 14-year-old boy, only to discover it contains a nude photo of his 13-year-old girlfriend. Do you: a) call the boy’s parents in despair, b) call the girl’s parents in despair, or c) call the police? More and more, the answer is d) all of the above. Which could result in criminal charges for both of your students and their eventual designation as sex offenders.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Dahlia Lithwick’s provocative story on Slate.com, “Textual Misconduct: What to do about teens and their dumb naked photos of themselves.”
“Sexting” is the clever new name for the act of sending, receiving, or forwarding naked photos via your cell phone. As the aunt of a beautiful and daring 17-year-old, I’m privy to her exploits, thanks to online social sites where she and her high-school friends post photos and videos of many of their activities. She is a good girl and we have (I think) an honest and open dialogue together, but, like most teens, she and her friends love to push the envelope. Hey, didn’t we all when we were young and considered ourselves invincible? The issue now is this: one racy, brazen Valentine photo for a boyfriend can land both the wannabe model and the recipient of the image with felony charges for manufacture, dissemination and possession of child pornography—and an appearance on a list of registered sex offenders. How will these consequences affect entrance into college, attempts to secure employment?
Lithwick reports that one teen in five reports he or she has sent or posted naked photos of himself or herself, according to a new survey by the National Campaign To Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. Additionally,
- In January 2009, three girls (ages 14 or 15) in Greensburg, Pa., were charged with disseminating child pornography for sexting their boyfriends. The boys who received the images were charged with possession.
- A teenager in Indiana faces felony obscenity charges for sending a picture of his genitals to female classmates.
- A 15-year-old girl in Ohio and a 14-year-old girl in Michigan were charged with felonies for sending nude images of themselves to classmates.
- Nationally, more than 75 billion text messages are sent a month, and the most avid texters are 13 to 17, say researchers. Teens with cellphones average 2,272 text messages a month, compared with 203 calls, according to the Nielsen Co.
If convicted, these young people may have to register as sex offenders, in some cases for a decade or two. Similar charges have been filed in cases in Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, New Jersey, New York, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin.
Must we prosecute kids with a felony—as the producers and purveyors of kiddie porn—because they are too immature to understand that their seemingly innocent acts can hurt them? Child pornography laws intended to protect children should not be used to prosecute and then label children as sex offenders.
According to Lithwick, school districts have reacted to the uptick in sexting by simply prohibiting students from bringing cell phones to school. This doesn’t stop students from sexting, it just stops them from being caught, enacting what amounts to a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy.
At some level, teens understand that once their image reaches someone else’s cell phone, what happened in Vegas is unlikely to stay there, she comments.
The National Campaign To Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy survey suggests 25% of teen girls and 33% of teen boys report seeing naked images originally sent to someone else.
The same survey showed that teens can be staggeringly naive in another way: 20% have posted a naked photo of themselves despite the fact that 71% of those asked understand that doing so can have serious negative consequences. Understanding the consequences of risky behavior but engaging in it anyhow? Smells like teen spirit to me, muses Lithwick.
The real problem with criminalizing teen sexting as a form of child pornography is that the great majority of these kids are not predators.
Many experts insist the sexting trend hurts teen girls more than boys, fretting that they feel “pressured” to take and send naked photos. Yet, as Lithwick points out, the girls in the Pennsylvania case were charged with “manufacturing, disseminating or possessing child pornography” while the boys were merely charged with possession. If we are worried about the poor girls pressured into exposing themselves, why are we treating them more harshly than the boys?
Parents need to remind their teens that a dumb moment can last a lifetime in cyberspace. Judges and prosecutors need to understand that a lifetime of cyber-humiliation shouldn’t be grounds for a very real and possibly lifelong criminal record.
Further research on this topic was presented at the 2009 WiredKid’s Summit by Teenangels and Tweenangels (non-profit groups of 13- to 18-year old and 9- to 12-year-old volunteers who have been specially trained in all aspects of online safety, privacy and security. The Teenangels run unique programs in schools to educate other teens and younger kids, parents, and teachers about responsible and safe surfing). Here are their findings:
• Cyberbullying occurs as early as 2nd grade and peaks in 4th grade.
• When kids are targeted by a cyberbully, most kids hide it from their parents (unless they surf together or play online games together).
• Boys tend to be riskier online than girls, by sharing more personal information and offline meetings with people they only know online.
• When kids engage their parents with their online activities, the kids themselves are safer and more careful across the board. Five times as many of them know about parental controls and privacy settings than the kids who always surf alone.
• Moms play online games with their kids almost as often as dads do.
• Boys post more videos to YouTube than girls do, but both watch them as often.
• 85% of elementary school kids share their password with at least one other person.