Teenage “Sexting”: One More Thing To Keep Parents Up At Night
By David H. Landon
Some consider it a high-tech version of the right-of-passage teenage game of “spin-the-bottle.” But when this new game goes bad, the consequenses are much more serious. Teenage “sexting” – young people providing nude or semi-nude images using digital technology – has become an issue that parents of young people are now being forced to think about and deal with. Teenagers coming to grips with their own sexuality have been a constant dilemma for parents throughout history, and although this sexting issue is of a similar vein, the results can be more damaging and long-lasting.
What parents and authorities are dealing with in addition to teens’ raging hormones and the inability of teens to recognize and avoid the potential negative consequences of their impulsive actions, is the permanent nature of digital imaging technologies when combined with the World Wide Web. Today’s lapse in judgement by a teen can possibly follow him or her for the rest of their lives as these private pictures can now live in cyber space forever. There are important reasons to find ways to discourage teens from this behavior. Their relationships are too unstable and chances are that these images are likely to be widely disseminated. There are numerous cases where teens have been so devastated after such images “go viral” that they have tried to hurt themselves, including committing suicide. Sexting places teens at greater risk of humiliation or exploitation.
It starts out innocently enough. Teenages fall in love and believe that they have met the love of their lives. They are under the delusion that this will be the person with whom they spend the rest of their lives walking hand-in-hand. They exchange class rings, exchange cell phone numbers and then to prove their love to one another, exchange nude or semi-nude pictures. Unfortunately, the odds are stacked against these high school relationships. Most of them come to a tearful end and that creates a problem that previous generations never had to face. How does one retrieve a digital image from the ex-love of your life? Suddenly the boy with whom you were so madly in love and who only last week you told your parents was so sweet, lashes out over the break-up by sending your private picture to all of the guys on the football team.
There are strict laws in every state addressing the issue of child pornography. A violation of these laws is considered a felony with serious and long-lasting consequenses including jail time and the requirement of those convicted having to register as sex offenders. The issue that sexting forces law enforcement to wrestle with is whether or not these pictures, when exchanged between underage teenagers, is a violation of the child pornography laws. The U.S. Supreme Court recently noted in “ HYPERLINK “http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/00-795.ZS.html” \t “_blank” Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition” that laws against trafficking in child pornography are designed to address the concerns of “subcultures of persons who harbor illicit desires for children and commit criminal acts to gratify the impulses.” These laws against child pornography are supposed to protect minors from sexual abuse. We should not be using these laws to charge them as criminals.
How widespread is the problem? A recent Associated Press MTV poll found that more than a quarter of young people have been involved in some sort of sexting. One in 10 young persons has sent a digital nude or semi-nude picture of themselves to another teen. One in four teens has viewed such a picture. Clearly this is an issue that needs to be addressed, but it is important to find the right balance in how we address this behavior.
In Indiana, two young people, ages 12 and 13, were recently arrested for sharing nude pictures. Playing the digital version of “show me yours and I’ll show you mine,” they were charged with trafficking in child pornography and exploitation of a minor. It’s time to use some common sense in dealing with these young people. While there needs to be legal consequences for sexting to serve as a deterent to young people, we need to keep the matter in perspective and not saddle these kids with felonies and a sexual offender status that will follow them for the rest of their lives. The other part of a sensible approach is that these matters should be handled as privately as possible. There is no public good served by making these cases public, subjecting these young people to further public scrutiny and humiliation.
Several states, including Ohio, are considering legislation which would change existing child pornography laws in order to address this growing phenomenon among teenagers. Their legislation addresses the challenges of dealing with teen sexting. They attempt to do this by creating a new crime that targets minors who self-create and disseminate nude images. The minor would be charged with a first-degree misdemeaner and be required to participate in education classes about how this type of behavior could affect their lives. In addition, this legislation does not affect the state’s ability to try actual sex offenders. This seems like a reasonable approach to this problem. No parent wants to hear that their minor child has been involved in behavior which the parent believes too promiscuous. At the same time, no parent wants their child to be labeled for life for a mistake of judgment and a misplacement of trust.
Dave H. Landon is the former chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party Central Committee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.