Teen Sexting: Legislate or Educate?

Sexting continues to bedevil us. Recent studies show that 39% of teens have sent a sext and 20% of teens have posted nude or semi-nude photos or videos online. Among young adults (20 – 29 years old), the prevalence for sexting jumps to 59%.

Some commentators make the case that sexting is fast becoming a new norm among consenting adults and not something to be too concerned about. While there may be some truth in that argument, the curse of revenge porn – when an ex partner posts or shares intimate images of his former partner – suggests that even for adults, sexting has the potential to ruin someone’s reputation or worse.

It becomes much more problematic when teens sext. Not only is there the same danger of photos and videos being broadly circulated – against the person’s wishes – but often minors engaged in sexting fall foul of child pornography laws specifically created to protect them.

A new controversial bill, with considerable ramifications, passed the US House of Representatives recently with very little attention. Entitled, “Protecting Against Child Exploitation Act of 2017,” the legislation was championed by Rep. Mike Johnson (R-Louisiana) and gained bi-partisan support, though Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) called it, “deadly and counter productive.”

On the surface, it is a laudable attempt to deal with one of the most heinous crimes in our society: child sexual exploitation. The bill would penalize those sending or attempting or conspiring to produce and send sexually explicit images of minors. While it is absolutely right that adults producing and or sending sexual images of children should be prosecuted under the law, this bill is overly broad, and includes consenting teens sharing images of themselves.

What’s more, those prosecuted would receive a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years and be placed on the sex offender registry for life. The proposed bill also criminalizes parents or guardians who knowingly allow their kids to sext.

While this well-intentioned law is written to protect minors from predatory adults, it may have profound negative consequences for teens who consensually share explicit photos and videos with their friends, should they be prosecuted.

In response to the legislation, the ACLU tweeted:

“The purpose of child pornography laws is to prevent minors from being abused, not criminalize young people for sexual experimentation.”

Rather than legislation in response to teen sexting, FOSI has consistently called for greater awareness raising and educational efforts to inform parents and their teens of the potential risks and harms of sexting. Leaving aside the contentious issue of mandatory minimum sentences, this bill is problematic on numerous fronts.

Sexting can lead to a damaging loss of reputation when photos or videos are distributed. Some teens are particularly prone to being cajoled or harassed into taking and sending photos of themselves to their love interests only to see these used against them leading to devastating emotional distress. There are a number of excellent guides to help remove intimate images from all of the major social media sites, including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Google. And the UK’s South West Grid for Learning has, perhaps, the best guide for dealing with the emotional and reputational fall out that can come from teen sexting in their aptly titled booklet, “So You Got Naked Online”.

Psychologist, Elizabeth Englander promotes the idea of “sexting-ed” to be taught in schools to discuss the common risks that sexting poses, but to do so realistically. She points out that, “Students may view the risk of having others see your nude picture as existent but, realistically, pretty low. Hearing adults harp on the possibility as though forwarding were routine can therefore come across as a categorical overreaction.”

Rather than criminalizing impulsive or not-thought-through behavior of our teens, we need to warn, persuade and convince our young people that sexting is a risky behavior with the potential for considerable personal consequences. We also need to stress the responsibility of teens not to pass on or share these images. But to lock up the very minors that the law was crafted to protect – and for a minimum of 15 years – is unconscionable.

The bill moves on to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where, hopefully, there will be considered debate to fully discuss the implications of this overly broad bill and some discussion on additional education for teens.

In the meantime, we need a national dialogue about teen sexual behavior in the digital age. This conversation should do so in the context of young people’s actual experiences and not be a fear-based monologue that unrealistically portrays sexting as criminal – unless coercion is involved.

And we need research into young people’s attitudes and experiences online that can inform future educational efforts and, if needed, legislation that actually protects minors – not sweep them up and imprison them in its provisions.

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