Imagine this scenario: an 18-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl have been dating for two and a half years. They are in love, and on Valentine’s Day, she takes a naked picture of herself on her cell phone and sends it to him. No big deal, you might say. Just a simple “sext.”
Now imagine that after a fight, he forwards the picture to his contact list. What was a simple sext is no longer harmless, And, under law, it’s a felony.
In 2008, Phillip Alpert, the boy in this scenario, was charged with 72 counts under Florida’s child pornography laws and will be a registered sex offender until he turns 43. He is prohibited from living near a school, a playground, a beach or a park for the next 25 years.
Some might say that Alpert’s punishment is fair. It’s difficult to disagree. What he did was malicious, stupid and disgusting. The girl in question was humiliated and the images of her will never completely disappear.
But does labeling Alpert a sex offender really solve anything? Maybe it does in his case.
But what about the girl? In teen sexting scandals, the offender and the victim are often one in the same in the eyes of the law. Florida could have also charged her for taking the picture and sending it to Alpert because legally speaking, she produced and distributed child pornography. She wasn’t charged, but many others have been. In 2009, three girls in Pennsylvania, all 14 or 15 years old, were slapped with charges of manufacturing, disseminating and possessing child pornography.
These scenarios may seem extreme, but sexting — the act of sending sexually explicit messages or photographs electronically — has become common among teens in the United States. A survey conducted by The National Campaign to Support Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found that while three-quarters of teens knew sexting was a bad idea with “serious negative consequences,” one in five teens had sexted before. In addition, one in four teen girls and 33 percent of teen boys had seen naked images originally sent to someone else.
Maybe they’ve learned from example. Teenage celebrities are sexualized in the media all the time. Britney Spears wore a school girl outfit when she was 16 in her music videos; semi-naked pictures of Miley Cyrus, taken when she was 15, are all over the Internet. But while society celebrated these celebrities, it seems all too willing to punish those less famous.
When child pornography laws were created, they were intended to protect children. But now, ironically, these laws are used to prosecute and label children as sex offenders. Lawmakers take a firm stand against sexting teens because if the punishment is harsh, they argue, kids will stop doing it. By word of law, these teens are producing and distributing child pornography, and that crime comes with a harsh punishment.
Furthermore, many kids don’t seem to understand that once an image of you is on the Internet, naked or not, you lose control over it. It could end up in the inbox of your boyfriend, his friends, your principal or your parents. Or, more troublingly, on the hard drive of a pedophile.
But, despite lawmakers’ efforts, scandals continue to break every month in middle schools across America,
Perhaps, nothing is working because sexting is an issue that reflects more about the dangers of technological teens than it does some international cyber-crime extravaganza. The harsh approach currently taken overlooks the fact that most sexts and the decision to pass them along, are dumb, if malicious, moments rather than representative of larger criminal intentions. Teenagers are still kids after all. Prosecutors need to understand that a picture taken in an unthinking moment shouldn’t be grounds for a very real and possibly lifelong criminal record.
They may be catching on, however. There is a bill currently under review in Florida that would decriminalize sexting. Punishments would be reduced to a fine and community service, and for subsequent offences, a misdemeanor charge and jail time.
Such a law recognizes that teens do stupid stuff all the time. They have unprotected sex, impregnate and get pregnant, drink, lie to their parents and do drugs. They also post naked pictures of themselves on the Internet.
But we can’t just change the law. At the same time, educators and parents need to remind teens that a dumb moment can last a lifetime in cyberspace. Just as we tell kids “use a condom” and to “say no to drugs,” we also need to tell them to “think before you sext”
Talking to teens about sexting is not going to stop it, but it may help them understand that their future college or employer could potentially see those images, that passing an image along humiliates the person in the picture and that their actions make the battle against child pornography harder.
And in the meantime, let’s refrain from making kids who sext searchable on Watchdog.
Kathryn Olivarius is a junior in Branford College.