Last June, eight students at Susquenita High School near Harrisburg, Pa., got a nasty surprise. The students, who ranged in age from 13 to 17, got caught with nude photos of each other on their cell phones. School officials brought in the police, and each teen was slapped with a felony pornography charge.
Variations on this story have been repeated thousands of times nationwide. Thanks to the explosion in cell phone use, the practice of “sexting” is now common among teenagers. A 2009 survey by MTV and the Associated Press found that 24 percent of young people between 14 and 17 had been involved “in some kind of naked sexting.”
And in many cases, school officials have responded by calling in the police. Child pornography laws, most written before the advent of cell phone photography, often require it. The upshot has been a long parade of teenagers being thrown tragically and unnecessarily into the legal system.
Child pornography is, of course, a serious crime. And sexting has complicated efforts to protect kids. Naked photos taken casually by teenagers can wind up in the hands of genuine pedophiles. Not to mention that sexting photos can have other dark uses, such as blackmail or cyberbullying. At the very least, they can live online long after the moment in which they were sent has passed.
But child pornography laws are designed to protect kids from predatory adults. In some sexting cases, these laws instead wind up targeting the kids themselves. Many teens caught sexting face long, expensive, and reputation-destroying legal actions. Some must register as sex offenders for years afterward.
Dumping the full weight of the law on teenagers who have merely done something impulsive or dumb is itself criminal. Fortunately, some states are now recognizing that fact. New Jersey lawmakers are considering a law that would create a program to teach teens about the penalties and social consequences of sexting. According to NJ.com:
“Only first-time offenders would be covered by the bill. A juvenile court would have to determine whether the teen would be harmed by prosecution; whether he or she was aware sexting was a crime; and whether the program would likely deter them from doing it again.
“When our children are in many different places doing many different things, we need to find a means and mechanism not to send them off to jail,” says [Assemblywoman Pamela] Lampitt, the bill’s sponsor. “We need to find a means and a mechanism to educate them.
That is exactly right. There’s no question that teenagers need help in understanding the full consequences of sexting. But often those involved are the very kids who most desperately need counseling and the help of adults. The fact that these same adults are willing to instead brand kids with child pornography charges sounds like some improbable subplot from a Dickens’ novel.
One solution is for state laws to catch up with the times. But also, schools must finally abandon their failed zero-tolerance discipline policies. These policies have merely created higher dropout rates and fed the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Sexting is clearly a serious issue that schools must address. But ruining young lives is not the way to do that.
If you work with teens, how are you helping them understand the social consequences of sexting?
Price is the managing editor of Teaching Tolerance.