According to internet safety experts and many public policy officials, teens increasingly face the possibility of becoming registered sex offenders for sending sexually explicit images of themselves (or others) over the Internet and their cell phones. More and more schools and parents have discovered that their teenage sons and daughters have emailed sexually suggestive photos of themselves to other classmates, usually through their cell phone cameras. Remember the Polaroid Land Camera? And you thought that was high-tech …
To combat what many perceive to be a growing problem here, some prosecutors across the country have suggested that emailing such images (by underage teens of themselves or others,) could constitute dissemination of illegal “kiddie porn.” While dissemination of nude and semi-nude images of persons over 18 is legal, such images of anyone under 18 are considered illegal pornography in almost all states. Dissemination of these images over the internet, via ‘sexting,’ might constitute a federal crime. Most sexting involves girls who intend to send the photo to a boyfriend or someone they are interested in. It used to be that if a high school kid were interested in another student, she or he would try to get into a study group with that student, or strike up a conversation. Not so any more. If these pictures stayed with the intended recipient and strayed no further, perhaps there wouldn’t result any real problems.
But of course, that’s not what happens. The “innocent” photo soon enough is forwarded to friends, and friend of friends, and faster that you can say “swine flu,” it spreads like a virus, and the whole school (if not half the town) has seen the images. Clearly, this is a bad idea and a foolish practice. Before she or he knows it, aside from being the talk of the school, the person who took the photo of him or herself, is the target of cyber-bullying, with threats made by enemies or extortionists to post the images on YouTube and the internet. A California-based nonprofit agency, i-SAFE, which provides an online safety curriculum for students in Grades K-12, recently coordinated “Cyber Safety Week” across various schools in Massachusetts, to warn of these dangers, and this is a good first response to this problem. The Verizon Foundation donated $100,000 for the training sessions. At the Greater New Bedford Vocational School where one such program was held recently, Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson commented, “This is a whole new crime prevention program for a threat facing our children and our parents.” Hodgson’s department has been sponsoring an Internet safety campaign for the last two years.
Clearly, ‘sexting’ is a bad idea and a foolish practice, and anyone familiar with the speed and ubiquity of the internet ought to know that – especially a teenager, as (believe it or not,) they tend to be far more proficient in internet use and applications than most adults. But should ‘sexting’ be a crime? Most anyone would agree that cyber-bullying should be a crime. But ‘sexting’? Should that be considered “pornography” in the commercial sense? (This is how nude and semi-nude images of children under 18 are restricted in magazines and publications.) Should teens found to have ‘sexted’ be required to register as “sex offenders”?
As a Boston sex offenses defense lawyer, I think that’s an extreme response. Let me know how you feel about this. Fill out a Contact Form on any page here, and send me your comments.