The Monitor's View

'Sexting' overreach

Misguided teens who send racy pictures between cellphones should not be charged under child pornography laws.

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How heavily should the law come down on teens who take part in a phenomenon known as "sexting"?

The practice involves sending nude or seminude images of one's self or others between cellphones (teens also post them online). Apparently, 1 in 5 teenagers in America admits to having sent or received such images.

Legal action on sexting is moving rapidly. At least 20 prosecutions have been undertaken or threatened in recent months – some involving criminal child-pornography laws that could list convicted teens as sex offenders.

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In March, a 14-year-old girl in New Jersey was charged with possession and distribution of child pornography for posting nude pictures of herself online for her boyfriend to see.

A federal judge recently blocked an attempt to prosecute three teenage girls in Pennsylvania whose racy photos ended up on classmates' phones. The photos were not illegal, he said.

Ohio is considering a bill to treat sexting among minors as only a first-degree misdemeanor. Vermont is weighing a bill that would legalize consensual sexting between two youths ages 13 to 18. Some Vermont lawmakers want the bill to address the need for education about the dangers of sexting. And, as in Ohio, some of Vermont's legislators still want the threat of punishment – but via a civil suit or the juvenile court system (a logical place to try serious cases involving youths).

The tension here is between immature acts and their potentially harmful repercussions. After pressing "send," the teen loses control of the picture. Dissemination can attract pedophiles and invite devastating harassment. Last year, Jessica Logan, a Cincinnati teen, committed suicide after a cellphone nude photo of herself – meant only for her boyfriend – circulated widely in her senior year of high school and brought on taunting wherever she turned.

Misguided teens should not be punished with laws meant to protect them – as child pornography laws are supposed to do. An education push needs to take place among parents, teens, and school officials, who all share responsibility for stopping this new-style voyeurism.

Parents, for instance, need to realize how common this behavior is, learn what photo transmitting equipment is in the house and how it works. They must discuss sexting with their kids, monitor what they're doing, and if necessary, restrict access to equipment.

Kids, meanwhile, need to look out for each other, and practice the golden rule of cyberspace – don't do anything online that you wouldn't do offline. Schools need rules about sexting, and guidelines for how to handle it when they find it.

The encouraging thing is that behavior can change: Most kids now use privacy settings on websites such as Facebook.

While education can do much to check this trend, serious cases shouldn't be chalked up to "kids will be kids." There must be a balance. Whether it can be found in existing laws still needs to be tested.

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