There is a new report! on my site about sexting. These are more brief comments.
Sexting! Teens sending nude sexy images! Admittedly, the combination of teens, technology, and sex can tend to freak out many adults, but please can we stop the scorched earth approach of dealing with this new challenge?
When I first started investigating this issue, my theory was that this new trend is a combination of digital imaging technologies, teen’s raging hormones, and teen’s biological inability to effectively predict the potential negative consequences of their actions. The recent AARP story about seniors engaged in sexting blew that theory to shreds. It appears that sexting should be considered within the range of normal human sexual behavior. This being said, there are important reasons to discourage this behavior in teens. Their relationships are too unstable, the images are much more likely to be widely disseminated, and when such images “go viral” this can place teens at greater risk of humiliation or exploitation.
But PLEASE adults do not also demonstrate the inability to effectively predict the potential negative consequences before you act!!!
Clearly, some adults are freaking out. Two young Indiana teens, ages 12 and 13, who shared images privately in the digital version of “show me yours, I show you mine” were recently arrested and charged with trafficking in child pornography and exploitation of a minor. A young man, who was angry over the break-up of his relationship, distributed his ex’s nude images to others and is now registered as a sex offender. Yes, he deserved a criminal consequence. But destroying the lives of young adults for what is normative behavior and clogging up the sex offender registries with people who do not present risks of engaging in sex abuse is irrational.
The Attorney General of Texas is currently telling residents of his state that 1 in 4 teens are engaging in sexting and they all risk 10 years in prison and registration as sex offenders. He obviously has not calculated the costs of locking up 20% of the teens in his state. A district attorney in Illinois is not only warning teens that they face arrest, he is advising them how one teen handled the situation where she was publicly humiliated – by committing suicide. This kind of messaging can cause a teen to contemplate suicide as an option if an image shared under assurances of privacy is now being distributed.
There is a range of behavior involved here, from private behavior to egregious behavior. Some of these incidents should be considered developmentally normative – private sharing between partners or the digital version of “spin the bottle.” Unfortunately, sometimes these images are disseminated more widely than originally anticipated. Other times, there is evidence of pressure or even coercion in requesting a teen to create and provide such an image. This may be by an abusive partner or a bully. Other times, there is malicious distribution, such as distributing an image of a former partner after a break-up. In a minority of situations, the teen depicted appears to be engaging in high risk self-exploitation behavior or an older teen may be soliciting sex from a younger teen or trafficking in child pornography. Obviously, a tiered approach to consequences is necessary.
Should these nude images be considered child pornography? Except in a minority of situations, obviously not. The U.S. Supreme Court recently noted 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.” (Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition) Laws against child pornography are supposed to protect minors from sexual abuse – not be used to charge them as criminals.
These images are generally shared in trust that they will remain private. When they are disseminated, this is a violation of that trust and an invasion of privacy. There are invasion of privacy laws against taking a photograph in a place where privacy is expected. This is the legal arena where these situations need to be addressed. State statutes addressing invasion of privacy should be revised to cover those situations where malicious actions, such as manipulation or coercion, led a teen to create and provide an image, as well as to those situations where the image is distributed beyond the original private sharing – with increased penalties if the distribution was for malicious purposes.
It is exceptionally important to be cognizant of the unintended negative consequences of telling teens they can be arrested for creating child pornography and proposed legislation that would create a misdemeanor crime of self-creation. We know that young people who are sexually abused frequently do not report such abuse, because they are afraid they will get into trouble. Online predators, sexual abusers, and abusive partners will still be effective in manipulating or coercing teens to provide nude images. What are the chances teens will report such sexual abuse, or use of their image for blackmail, if they risk arrest for self-creation? This approach merely provides support for sexual abusers.
It is also necessary to address sexting situations that involve peers of a similar age, but where one is considered to be an adult because he or she is 18. Destroying the lives of young adults by registering them as sex offenders for behavior that appears to be relatively commonplace is outrageous – and will simply make it harder for law enforcement to keep track of the truly dangerous sexual abusers. The safe harbor exceptions in the statutory rape laws recognize the reality that sexual interactions cross this arbitrary designation of when someone becomes an adult. This same approach should be taken when dealing with sexting issues. Privately shared images between peers of a like age, where there has not been coercion or distribution, should have no legal consequence.
Lastly, we have to address how to investigate and intervene in these situations. In every state, there are Multidisciplinary Teams that investigate child abuse. These MDTs include law enforcement and mental health professionals. The MDTs should be designated as responsible for overseeing all investigations and plans for intervention. In many situations, it would be best if school officials conduct the initial investigation because they know the participants, have rapport, and can effectively respond to the minor incidents through education, working with parents, or school discipline.
It is imperative that everyone strive to prevent these incidents from being publicly reported. Such reporting appears to widen the distribution and legitimize peer sexual harassment. How many more teen suicides do we need before we realize the need to respond to these sexting situations privately? (Hope) (Jesse) Schools have a legal obligation to prevent the sexual harassment of students – even if the student engaged in actions that have led to the harassment. Preventing harassment is exceptionally difficult, if not impossible, when these sexting situations are publicly reported.
Please everyone, especially law enforcement officials, legislators, and school officials, take a deep breath and think before you act in ways that could damage young people.