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New Laws Needed To Deal With “Sexting” & Other Youth Activities Online

“N.J. Teen Won’t Face Child Porn Charges for Posting Nude Photos of Self on MySpace”

It seems that reason prevailed in the case, above, of a teen using technology in a very unwise manner.  This case, and others like it, reflect the fact that the legal system has once again lagged culture and technology. (Click on the title of the article, above, to read the story.)

Currently, sexually explicit/exploitive images of children are considered child pornography.  Until recent years, the “sources” of such material were adults exploiting and abusing children.  Hence, it was outlawed, as it should be.

But, what if a child/teen takes their own picture and then shares it?

at-your-fingersLegally, they may very well be in violation of state and/or federal child pornography laws intended to protect children and punish adults who are exploiting children.  If convicted, a “youthful indiscretion” or moment of sheer stupidity can damage a child’s life:

  • Worst case, legally, is that they are charged with and/or convicted of child pornography and have to register as a sex offender with the potential of continuing as such into adulthood.  This may not be a high probability, as many DA’s are not prosecuting, but the risk is there.
  • People other than the original intended recipient may acquire the images/videos, essentially eliminating any control over the material.  Who knows who would end up with it?  Stranger? Neighbor? Competitor?
  • Images can be used as a “weapon” by spurned beaus or social adversaries.  There have been cases of teens driven to suicide because of this. (LINK)
  • Online images and writings on sites such as MySpace, Facebook, etc., are now scanned by 20%+ of employers as well as numerous college admissions and scholarship committees.
  • Such images, once on the Internet, can never be completely eliminated.  This raises the risk of Mr./Miss Right finding them and deciding to date/marry someone else. (I reject the counter that you might FIND Mr./Mrs. Right that way.)
  • There are images/movies online that were uploaded 10+ years ago.  There is a reasonable possibility that children or their friends may one day encounter pornography starring their own parents.

With webcams, phone cams, digital cameras and video cameras, young people are at risk to making very serious mistakes through these types of  “youthful indescretions”.  But, if they do something stupid like this the impact on their “record” should not be lifelong.

laptop-w-caution-tapeConsider these true events that parents shared with me after several of my SEX, KIDS, & THE INTERNET™ Seminars:

  • A father related how he was informed that his son did not receive a $40,000 scholarship because of what was on the PRIVATE part of his MySpace page.
  • The mother who was told during a “how to get into this school” weekend that the nationally recognized dental school had already rejected applicants due to the applicants’ involvement in images and writings on MySpace pages that were 3&4 “friend levels” away! (Friend of a friend of a friend’s page, etc.)
  • The executive who related how a number of applicants for a $80K job at her technology firm did not get hired because  of online activity.
  • The father who found sexual images of his teenage son and his girlfriend on his son’s phone. (Keep in mind that possessing such images could land the father in trouble!)

OUCH!

These are just a few of many cases.

Keep in mind that all it takes to lose control of an embarrassing image/video is to have someone on your “friend’s list” download it to their computer or forward it on their phone.

Not that hard, eh?

In the case of the girl driven to suicide, she had sent her boyfriend inappropriate pictures of herself via her cell phone.  When they broke up, the boy sent them on to others in the school.

In many cases around the country teens and even pre-teens have faced the prospect of child pornography charges because they were unwise or susceptible to pressure.

Now, I’m not a lawyer, nor have I played one on TV, but I think we may need some new laws to reasonably deal with this.

“Wait,” a reader begins, “if it is their own pictures what’s the harm?  Why should the legal system get involved?”

The harm is multifaceted.

  1. First off, such images, once they leave the child’s control, can find their way into the ilicit child porn community, feeding both online criminal behavior and perverted acts in “realspace”.
  2. Second, such images are bound to remain on the Internet.  In my YOU, SEX, & THE INTERNET™ seminars for youth I tell them that, once they upload content, it is there:

    FOREVER & FOR-EVERYONE!!!

    I’ve received credible reports of inappropriate material (of adults) from the late 80’s being digitized and placed online (yes, there was online porn before the web!).

  3. Third,  it can socially destroy a child’s life.  It has the potential, as we saw in the article linked above, to even drive a child to suicide.
  4. Fourth, it can have adverse effects on the entire family.  One family close to where I live ended up having to leave town because of the ramifications from their daughter’s “cell-porn” that “escaped”.  This had an adverse effect on her father’s career!
  5. Lastly:  IT’S THE LAW! These laws protect Society at large.  Adults face similar boundaries of this type, as well.  For instance, you can’t walk down the street with a nude/pornographic picture of yourself on a T-shirt.  Here in Texas, you would definitely be arrested!

Electronic gadgetsSo, we do need laws that provide a means to addressing the production of such illegal material without treating the child like a pervert distributing to others, especially since there are so many “innocent ways” they can commit offenses.  Where illegal content is created for and shared among youth/pre-teens, the laws need to carry significant consequences, without ruining their future.

Instead of being charged with creation and distribution of child pornography, children in such conduct could be charged with lesser, juvenile-oriented offenses such as:

  • Creation, distribution, and/or viewing of underage lewd/obscene material (PEER)
  • Creation,distribution, and/or viewing of underage  pornography (PEER)

The offenses should not use the term “Child Pornography” at all.  The use of the term (PEER) would identify the charge as a juvenile one.

These laws should have teeth in them, just like many, if not most, underage drinking laws do.  A slap on the wrist is insufficient.  Tough penalties discourage actions (for most, I’ll admit).  But, the laws should have the provision to be struck from the child’s record at age 18 as decided by the judge, based on the facts of the case.

Child pornography laws should justly apply when a youth is creating underage pornography for gain or widespread distribution and that is not limited (in intent) to their social circle, be the participants willing or duped.  That should not change.

But, a boy/girl should not face lifelong legal consequences just because they unwisely succumbed to temptation and took/received pictures of themselves or their boyfriend/girlfriend with their phone.

And, if you think that YOUR child would NEVER do anything like this, then ask yourself:

“What would I and my friends have done if WE had all this technology when we were young?”

COMMENTS? Please do!  Those in the legal/law enforcement profession are especially welcome!

PARENTS, PASTORS, & TEACHERS: Make sure that you teach children and youth in your charge how serious these actions are.  Most are unaware of the vulnerabilities of web sites and portable devices such as cell phones. In addition, most parents are clueless about these activities, or what to do about them.  Contact Knights’ Quest for information about programs for parents and youth that address these and other youth/Internet issues.

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