Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Sexting: How Did We Get Here?

by Katherine Scardino

Wikipedia defines sexting as the act of sending sexually explicit messages or photographs, primarily between mobile phones-- a combination of the words “sex” and “texting.” The term sexting was first published in Sunday Telegraph Magazine, a British broadcast newspaper, back in 2005. Most, if not all, states have laws against child pornography, so how can we allow sexually explicit photographs of our children to be sent across the Internet? And, more importantly, how and why is this happening?

Many states find themselves in a quandary about how to handle this issue. Teens sending nude pictures of themselves to each other is basically child pornography. If someone under the age of 18 takes a pornographic photo of themselves and then sends that photo to someone else, they are distributing child pornography. And, of course, the person who receives the photo is in possession of child pornography. These charges can potentially carry stiff criminal penalties. In some instances, the district attorney may determine that the acts involved in sexting constitute distribution or possession of child pornography and decide to prosecute. Others times they do not. Some states are interpreting the problem differently and coming up with various ways to deal with the problem, but it will most likely take a number of years for the laws to formulate and become even remotely consistent. 

In Texas, our state Attorney General has opined that adults with nude or semi-nude photographs on their mobile devices can be investigated and tried on felony child pornography charges. Teenagers with photographs of other teens aged 18 and under can be prosecuted, and face up to 10 years in prison. The recently proposed Texas Senate Bill 407 gives prosecutors an additional tool to use when prosecuting teens who engage in sexting by providing a more appropriate offense. 

Under Bill 407, charges for sexting for first-time offenders who are younger than 18 are considered a Class C misdemeanor instead of a felony child pornography charge. Those teen offenders, as well as their parents, may also have to participate in an education program. The proposed new law would also give teens the chance to apply to have the sexting charge expunged from their records. One of the good points of this proposed law is education. It requires school districts to provide information to students and parents including the legal and emotional impacts of sexting. If approved, this Texas statute would become effective in September 2011.

But, do you really think making parents go to some class to hear about their teenagers new “fun thing to do” and the evils of taking naughty pictures will make any impression on these kids? Is sexting going to be blamed on the parents? Surely there is something deeper going on here. Yes, parents need to watch over their children. Yes, parents need to teach their children to be responsible, law-abiding citizens. Do you think we just have kids who make dumb mistakes, or is this new craze reflective of the times? 

Sexting is simply a result of advances in technology enabling new forms of social interaction. Messages with sexual content have been exchanged over all forms of historical media. Newer technology allows for the recording and exchange of photographs and videos, which are intrinsically more explicit and have greater impact. But, one important risk to remember is that material can be very easily and widely propagated, over which the originator has absolutely no control. Once it is on the Internet, it is gone forever.

Sexting is popular with teenagers. It is a new thing to do. But it must be controlled. Whose job is it to intervene and make some changes? Is it the parents', schools' or law enforcement's job? Or a combination of all three? Obviously, in my opinion, all three must bear some responsibility. But, what bothers me is that parents get first shot at teaching their children morals, citizenship and respect. I cannot help but cringe at the thought of a young girl feeling so emotionally numb to believe that it is cute or cool to send a nude photograph over the Internet to a boyfriend, or just a friend, which is even worse.

We really should do something about this.


A Voice of Sanity said...

Blame the phone companies, not the children. Technically, it would be easy to have every photo sent by a child go to the parents' phones first, only to be forwarded if approved by one of them. This would cut out 99% (or more) of this behavior.

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