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Teen Sexting: The Medium is NOT the Message

Imposing lifelong consequences for teen behavior is contrary to adolescent development research, which confirms what parents already know-teenagers are impulsive and often make bad decisions, but they are also malleable and capable of change. The mistakes they make as teenagers are not predictive of who they will be as adults.
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Young woman sitting inside car and looking at cell phone, on overcast day, Germany
Young woman sitting inside car and looking at cell phone, on overcast day, Germany

2015-11-11-1447280138-6330967-Pittman_2015.jpgCo-author: Nicole Pittman, Director, Center on Youth Registration Reform at Impact Justice

The recent disclosures of widespread "sexting" at high schools in Colorado, New York and Ohio have once again sparked a national conversation about how sexting should be addressed. Should law enforcement supervise teenagers' sexual behavior or should parents manage their children's behavior in the privacy of their own homes? Today, teens communicate almost exclusively through technology, and they also use this technology to explore their normal adolescent curiosity about sex. Do we want our teenagers arrested, humiliated, and potentially labeled as "sex offenders" - in some cases for life -- simply because they are using an electronic form of communication instead of communicating in person?

Obviously, sexting should not be encouraged. But it's going to happen, and parents should address appropriate sexual behaviors with their teens and the potential consequences of sharing electronic images to protect their children from prosecution, a criminal record, suspension or expulsion from school, and hefty court fees.

Sharing photos beyond the intended recipient can unquestionably lead to unintended and potentially harmful consequences. But most teen sexting involves consensual sharing between individuals, and this is a key distinction.

Teens voluntarily viewing or sharing graphic or explicit photos of themselves (whether in person or by electronic communication) is not the same as exposing or disseminating those same images of teens involuntarily. When someone violates another's privacy without permission, it may be an appropriate matter for law enforcement. But law enforcement should NOT be involved with private, intimate communications between individuals, whether those individuals are teens or adults. This is a matter for parents to deal with at home -- not law enforcement or the courts.

Unfortunately, a heavy-handed response by school administrators, legislators, and law enforcement is all too common. Many state laws fail to draw any distinction between consensual sharing among teens and behavior by predatory adults who sexually abuse children. Many youth are charged with possession of child pornography because they themselves are minors and the images depicted involve minors. Simply put, they could be charged for possession of child pornography for having a picture of themselves on their phone or computer. These criminal charges can result in sex offender registration for these youth -- in some cases for the rest of their lives.

Sex offender registration laws were intended to protect children, not harm them, and were certainly never meant to apply to these kinds of scenarios. Children are essentially being condemned for life for mistakes they made during childhood. Of course, had these same youth chosen to act out their sexual curiosity in the real, rather than "virtual" world, their normal sexual exploration would generally have fallen outside the criminal or delinquent sphere.

A few observations about teen sexting:
• Adolescent curiosity about sex is normal, universal and timeless. The method of exploration should not dictate whether something is a crime.Twenty years ago, sharing sexually explicit Polaroid images did not initiate a 'call the cops' moment. But sexting can now lead to charges of possession of child pornography, and possibly lead to sex offender registration, sometimes for life.
• Sharing photos without permission is different from consensual sharing but must still be met with measured, appropriate responses, depending upon the circumstances.
• Thirty-nine states require children adjudicated in juvenile court of certain sex offenses to register on sex offense registries.
• In some states, children as young as 8, 10, or 12-years old are subject to sex offender registration and community notification, often into adulthood.

Imposing lifelong consequences for teen behavior is contrary to adolescent development research, which confirms what parents already know-teenagers are impulsive and often make bad decisions, but they are also malleable and capable of change. The mistakes they make as teenagers are not predictive of who they will be as adults.

Parents and school officials need to understand that in most of these situations, the consequences of criminalizing sexting are far more traumatic and damaging to children than the consensual sharing of the photos themselves. Teens who thought they were sharing a private moment with their boyfriend or girlfriend are now having their lives destroyed by the very systems meant to protect them. The notion that prosecutors, police, probation officers or school administrators are pouring over images of youth on the cell phones confiscated in schools is a striking invasion of privacy that inflicts harm, not protection.

Teenagers' use of technology is often mystifying to a generation that grew up with much simpler forms of communication. But the medium of technology should not change the essential nature of the content being communicated. Kids' exploration and curiosity about sex and sexual intimacy will take ever evolving forms. But when the response from the adults in charge of protecting our kids is more damaging than the kids' mistakes, we need to step back and think carefully about the problem we are trying to solve. Consensual sexting, like many other aspects of child development, requires a parental response and parental engagement - not prosecution.

For more information about the impact of registering children as sex offenders, see the Human Rights Watch report, Raised on the Registry: The Irreparable Harm of Placing Children on Sex Offender Registries in the US. This report represents the first examination of the collateral consequences of registration and notification for children.