A new bill has been proposed in New Jersey that would allow teens who are accused of "sexting" to avoid criminal prosecution. Sexting is a new age term that is primarily used to describe sending nude or partially-nude photos via text message on a cell phone. It is generally also defined as sending sexually suggestive communications and such communications and photos may also be sent via the internet. In some states, sending nude or partially-nude photos that depict a child under the age of 18 violates child pornography laws.
An online poll conducted by Cosmogirl.com found that approximately 20 percent of teens ages 13-19 admitted to having sent or received nude photos, either via cell phone text messages or online on social networking sites or chat rooms. The same study found that nearly 40 percent of teens admitted sending sexually suggestive messages to others.
The internet is awash with stories of teens feeling the consequences of sending nude photos of themselves to others. In some cases, the teens are arrested and prosecuted. In others, the teens find that the images, which may have been sent to a boyfriend with the promise that they would remain private, are then forwarded to others as revenge after a break-up. Another troubling account told the story of several boys who were tricked into sending nude images of themselves to someone they thought was a girl, only to find out later that it was an 18-year-old male who then extorted them for sex with the threat of exposing the photos to their parents.
The latter example is what law enforcement is calling "sextortion" and is becoming all too common. Teens who send nude photos don't want their parents, school officials, or law enforcement to find out about them. So when they are in the hands of an ex-boyfriend, ex-girlfriend, disgruntled classmate, or (God forbid) a predator, teens are threatened with further exposure and extorted for more photos, money, or sex.
The proposed New Jersey bill calls for the Attorney General's office to develop curriculum to teach teens the legal and non-legal consequences of sexting. The bill would also give discretion to prosecutors to permit diversion from formal prosecution those juveniles who have no prior record and did not know what they were doing was illegal (an interesting exception to the aged-old tenet "ignorance of the law is no excuse"). Diversion would require participation in counseling.
For me, the sexting issue and how to deal with it is not black and white, as the line between offender and victim can often be blurred. I didn't quite understand, for instance, charging a young female with distribution of child pornography for sending someone a nude photo of herself; especially considering that she would be considered the "victim." But consider this scenario: Your 14-year-old daughter receives an unsolicited photo message on her cell phone from an acquaintance. In it, he is completely nude. The sender has exposed himself to your daughter. That would be a crime if he did it in person. So in this case, we could expect the sender to be charged with a crime.
Now what about the receiver? I also find it troubling to charge the receiver if he or she simply possesses the photo and did not forward it nor did he or she solicit it. But what if it was solicited? What if the sender felt coerced? The line is blurred once again.
I am sure about this: I would expect criminal charges to be filed if a person is accused of distributing (or forwarding) such images to another person, regardless of whether there is an accusation of extortion. There is no blurring of the lines between victim and offender in this scenario.
Considering that prosecution for sexting could result in teens having a criminal record that would stay with them for the rest of their lives, and could include a requirement to register as a sex offender, I suppose it makes sense to give prosecutors discretion to decide on a case-by-case basis. I appreciate that legislators are looking at ways to sensibly deal with sexting.
But I'd like to see more empowerment for parents. I think more could be done by Internet and mobile phone providers to help parents monitor their kids' online and phone activity. Examples that I would suggest: Internet providers should offer an optional program that would allow parents to gain access to transcripts of their teen's chats; cell phone providers should devise a program that would allow parents to sign up for automatic forwarding to the parent any photo messages sent by their kids.
In the meantime, the best way to protect your teens is to communicate with them the serious consequences that could result from sexting. Parents ought to check their teens' phones and email and social network accounts regularly. If teens know that their parents are looking, hopefully they would be deterred from sexting. But, admittedly, if they are determined, no parental controls will help. The bottom line is: Arming them with information that will help them to make the right choices is the best thing you can do for your child.