Parents can forget that their kids may be as tech-savvy as Bill Gates but as gullible as Bambi. At some level, teens understand that once their image reaches someone else's cell phone, what happened in Vegas is unlikely to stay there. The National Campaign To Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy survey suggests 25 percent of teen girls and 33 percent of teen boys report seeing naked images originally sent to someone else. Yet even in the age of the Internet, young people fail to appreciate that their naked pictures want to roam free.
The same survey showed that teens can be staggeringly naive in another way: Twenty percent have posted a naked photo of themselves despite the fact that 71 percent of those asked understand that doing so can have serious negative consequences. Understanding the consequences of risky behavior but engaging in it anyhow? Smells like teen spirit to me.
The real problem with criminalizing teen sexting as a form of child pornography is that the great majority of these kids are not predators and have no intention of producing or purveying kiddie porn. They think they're being brash and sexy, in the manner of brash, sexy Americans everywhere: by being undressed. And while some of the reaction to the sexting epidemic reflects legitimate concerns about children as sex objects, some highlights pernicious legal stereotypes and fallacies. A recent New York Times article about online harassment, for instance, quotes the Family Violence Prevention Fund, a nonprofit domestic violence awareness group, saying that the sending of nude pictures, even if done voluntarily, constitutes "digital dating violence." But is one in five teens truly participating in an act of violence?
Many other experts insist the sexting trend hurts teen girls more than boys, fretting that they feel "pressured" to take and send naked photos. Yet the girls in the Pennsylvania case were charged with "manufacturing, disseminating or possessing child pornography" while the boys were merely charged with possession. This disparity seems increasingly common. If we are worried about the poor girls pressured into exposing themselves, why are we treating them more harshly than the boys?
In a thoughtful essay in the American Prospect Online, Judith Levine, author of Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex examines the dangers lurking online for children and concludes that the harms of old-fashioned online bullying—the sort of teasing and ostracism that led Megan Meier to kill herself after being tormented on MySpace—far outweigh the dangers of online sexual material. Judging from the sexting prosecutions in Pennsylvania and Ohio last year, it's clear the criminal justice system is too blunt an instrument to resolve a problem that reflects more about the volatile combination of teens and technology than some national cyber-crime spree. Parents need to remind their teens that a dumb moment can last a lifetime in cyberspace. Judges and prosecutors need to understand that a lifetime of cyber-humiliation shouldn't be grounds for a very real and possibly lifelong criminal record.
A version of this article also appears in this week's issue of Newsweek.