Sure, you're savvy enough to know your kids aren't wearing out their thumbs text-messaging about homework assignments. But did you know one in five teenagers has e-mailed or texted a nude or semi-nude self-portrait to someone else? OMG.
Most of the teens said they "sexted" the images to a boyfriend or girlfriend, according to a survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. But the survey also found that one in three teens has viewed racy photos originally sent to someone else, which generally means someone hit the "forward" button.
For a teen, the consequences can go well beyond the embarrassment of appearing naked on every cell phone in physics class. A nude image loose in cyberspace can torpedo a college application or a job search; worse, it can end up in the hands of a sexual predator. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children says one-fourth of kids who end up the victims of online child pornographers posted the images themselves.
Sexting can also get you in trouble with the law. Teens in several states have been charged with felonies - including sexual abuse of a minor and distributing or possessing child pornography - for sexting. In many cases, a conviction comes with a mandatory lifelong listing on a sex-offender registry.
It's safe to assume the authors of those laws didn't contemplate them being applied to, say, a photo of two junior high girls posing in their training bras at a slumber party in Pennsylvania. By the time those girls were freshmen in high school, the photo had found its way to more than a dozen classmates' phones, which were turned over to the local prosecutor after being confiscated by school officials. This week, a federal judge barred the prosecutor from charging the girls with child pornography or "open lewdness." The girls said they never consented to having the photo distributed and that it's not pornographic; the prosecutor called it "provocative."
As a lawyer for the girls put it, "Prosecutors shouldn't be using a nuclear-weapon-type charge like child pornography against kids who have no criminal intent and are merely doing stupid things."
But some cases aren't that clear, and some laws don't provide the wiggle room for judges or prosecutors to make distinctions between hormonal teens showing poor judgment and adults preying on innocent children.
In Vermont, lawmakers are considering exempting teens from child-pornography charges. Depending on circumstances, they could still be charged with lewd and lascivious behavior or disseminating indecent material to a child. That leaves room to prosecute the cases that are more than casual exchanges among youngsters. In Utah, teen sexting is now a misdemeanor.
Two Ohio lawmakers this week introduced a bill to remove mandatory sex-offender registration from teen sexting cases. Their bill has the blessing of the parents of a Cincinnati teen who killed herself last year after a nude photo she sent to her boyfriend ended up passed around her school.
It makes sense to make allowances for youthful stupidity, which most people outgrow, instead of saddling kids with a felony record or a "sex-offender" label that will be with them for life. But an even better approach is to get kids to think before hitting "send." You can start the conversation without snooping through your kid's phone, since the subject crops up in news stories with increasing regularity lately. Remind your youngster that while boy-girl relationships can be short-lived, the Internet is forever, and that some people can't resist sharing.
In Ohio, eight teens who traded nude photos on their phones were sentenced to a useful community-service project: The judge told them to poll their peers about the consequences of sexting. Only 31 of 225 knew it was illegal, which isn't really surprising. A lot of them don't even realize it's dumb.
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