Wouldn’t life be so much easier for parents and educators if teen-agers had no inclination toward sexual behavior?
Without any temptation to gossip about the sexual behavior of their peers?
There’s not an ostrich out there that wouldn’t sadly shake the sand from his or her eyes and concede, “That’s not our world.”
New technologies make it more important than ever to talk to teens about sexual behavior. The hormonal and inexperienced are now armed with smartphones and tablet computers.
Kids less than 18 years old need to know there’s a possibility of criminal charges for capturing and sharing sexually provocative pictures – even if they took the pictures of themselves – even if they’re exchanging self-images with someone of the same age who wants to receive them.
In the eyes of the law, sexting can be prosecuted as child pornography. Creating, possessing and distributing it are all considered crimes. A felony conviction will put them on the sex offender registry. It’s a cruel irony that teens can be criminalized by the same legislation intended to protect them.
Prosecutors also have the discretion to charge sexting under indecency and sexual harassment statutes. The guiding factor is whether there’s a “victim” and how affected that teen and their parents are about what happened.
Spreading the word, and covering butts
“Students engaging in this type of behavior realize it would get them in trouble with their parents, but they’re usually surprised to learn they’re breaking the law, and criminal charges could be brought against them” said Stephanie Tuttle, a Grand Rapids, Mich., attorney. “Those who laugh it off because they think they will never get caught are the ones I worry about.”
Tuttle has delivered her presentation “Sexting: Turning Students Into Sex Offenders” to about 25,000 students in Michigan at the invitation of school administrators in districts with one-to-one laptop and tablet computer programs.
Some districts, like Zeeland Public Schools, make watching a video of Tuttle’s presentation a perquisite for being issued an iPad.
No civil suits have been brought by Michigan parents against schools for providing the devices that students subsequently used for sexting, but Tuttle said school boards that adopt policies that require training about the possible legal ramifications of sexting take a step toward protecting themselves from legal actions.
Some states – in an apparent nod to the notion that prosecuting children for sexting under child pornography laws defies the spirit of these statutes – have made sexting by minors a misdemeanor.
Michigan isn’t one of them. And Tuttle says she’s found “zero interest” among lawmakers who are open to revising child pornography laws.
She is working with a Kent County steering committee to provide judges with an option of sentencing non-violent sexting offenders who did not use coercion to a year-long treatment program. These offenders would not be added to the sex offenders registry if the program is successfully completed.
Protecting kids from themselves
A typical scenario is that a dating couple will exchange sexts, but they aren’t kept private after a break-up. While blame and shame are often leveled at the person in the sexy selfie, those who open and forward the image are also in the wrong.
If sexting comes up, parents often look to school leaders for advice on how to address it.
Parents don’t want their teen taking or viewing provocative pictures, or being bullied for having succumbed. But the longer-term nightmare is probably being relegated to the sexual offenders registry along with actual pedophiles.
Here’s advice Tuttle suggests school communicators share with parents:
- Parents should announce a policy of random checks of your teen’s electronic devices. Check their camera roll for provocative poses and text messages for sex chat. If you find any, it’s time to have “the talk.”
- Parents should limit the time communication devices are used. Teens shouldn’t be allowed to take them to bed. Require that they be left overnight on a charger in a common room in the house. (“Your mother was right when she said ‘no good ever happens after midnight’,“ Tuttle said.)
- Sorry SnapChat, there’s no such thing as safe sexting. The screenshot function on the app allows images to be saved to a device before they evaporate.
- Nobody knows how a viral sext might affect teens chances of being accepted by the college of their choice or getting a job. Why take that risk? Teens need to be told they should not take or post pictures they wouldn’t want their parents and grandparents to see.
- If a sexy photo pops up in your teen’s Twitter or Instagram feed, emphasize that they must not retweet or share it with others because that constitutes an endorsement. It’s best to stop following the person who sent it.
How prevalent is sexting?
A report by the Pew Research Center found that 5 percent of 14- to 17-year-olds say they have “sexted” (sent sexy pictures of themselves by text or other form of instant messaging), and that 18 percent of that age group says they have received such images.
A 2011 Cosmogirl survey by Kimberlianne Podlas of 1,280 teenagers found higher numbers, with almost 20 percent of teens reporting they sext.
I don’t know if that qualifies as an “epidemic,” but apparently there are an astounding number of nude and nearly nude teen selfies in cyberspace.
Not all of them will cause enough harm, humiliation and harassment to result in criminal prosecution, but some will.
Tuttle hopes her school presentations will drastically reduce the number of teens who will face catastrophic criminal consequences. But she says it feels like sexting is a bigger problem than ever because the age at which students are getting smartphones is getting lower, as in 11 and 12.
“I’d rather hit prevention hard,” Tuttle said. “Chances for a good outcome are more difficult when you get a call from a parent saying, the police are at the door with a search warrant for my son or daughter’s cell phone and laptop computer.
“What should I do?”