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Charges against 'sexting' teenagers highlight legal gaps

The growing trend of teenagers sending seminude photos of themselves over cellphone presents a dilemma to parents and schools.

By Staff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor / March 30, 2009

Phillip Alpert talks about how "sexting" has ruined his life at his Orlando, Florida apartment. Alpert, 20, had to register as a sex offender two years ago after emailing nude photos of his underage girlfriend. They were both minors when the photos were taken. He has now been kicked out of college, cannot get a job, and has to attend an offender class with men who have raped children.

Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel/MCT/NEWSCOM

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In the latest sign of the disconnect between the legal system and an increasingly sexualized adolescent cyberculture, two 13-year-old Pennsylvania girls are threatened with child pornography charges for sending seminude photos of themselves via cellphone to their friends.

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A third girl, 16, who sent a picture of herself wrapped in a towel at her waist after a shower, may also face charges.

“Sexting” or “sexing,” the practice of sending nude or seminude pictures via cellphone or posting them online, is on the rise. A recent study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy found that one in five teenagers admitting to having posted or sent a nude or seminude picture of themselves. In another survey by wiredsafety.org, an Internet safety and educational nonprofit organization, 44 percent of teen boys said they have seen at least one naked picture of a female classmate.

Over the past year, as schools and parents in states from Ohio and New Jersey to Colorado and California have found out about the practice, prosecutors have also become involved, in some cases threatening felony charges against the teenagers.

The incidents have sparked a nascent national campaign to educate parents and change the laws.

“The laws are either too hot or too cold and we need to make sure we find one that is just right,” says Perry Aftab, an online safety and privacy expert who founded wiredsafety.org. “We are either charging kids under child pornography and sexual exploitation laws as if they were registered sex offenders – which they will be if they’re successfully prosecuted – or we’re giving them a slap on the wrist with harassment laws that were not intended to address this.”

The situation in Tunkhannock, Pa., illustrates the extent to which “sexting” has become part of adolescent culture and the dilemma that it presents to parents, teachers, and law enforcement officials.

Last October, officials at the Tunkhannock Area High School, which is in a rural community north of Scranton, confiscated several cellphones from students and discovered pictures of scantily clad or seminude female students on them. Parents were alerted, and so were the police. In November, the local district attorney sent a letter to parents stating they’d discovered a “disturbing trend” and that they were investigating “several juveniles for possessing nude or seminude photos of young girls.” The letter went on to warn parents of the legal consequences as well as the fact that the teens appeared to be unaware of them.

“One young lady, when questioned about her photo being on a cell phone, called this ‘flirting’,” the letter stated.

With an estimated 20 teens involved, district attorney George Skumanick decided to try what he calls “a progressive” approach to the problem. In February, he sent another letter to the teens’ parents saying that if the students agreed to be placed on probation, submit to random drug testing and take part in a five-week counseling program, he would not press felony charges.

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