Sexting leads to criminal charges

Tristan Boyd

     Texting is rapidly becoming a staple of the average teenager’s life, and as such, is beginning to work its way into other aspects of teens’ social lives. A new method of flirting, known as “sexting,”  has re-gained national attention in the last few months This racy practice has quickly gained popularity amongst a staggering number of teenagers across the country, but unbeknownst to many, is also leading to incredible developments in law.

     Several students in different states across the country were found in possession of sexting images by parents or school officials, and the consequences have been considerably more serious than simple referrals. Most notably, a recent case in Massachusetts involving a young boy who received a “sext” and then spread it amongst his friends, led to child pornography charges.

     Because most sexts include pictures of minors (often children around 15), some law prosecutors have concluded that these pictures are child pornography, and saving the images on a phone can be deemed possession of such illegal materials. Sending these images to friends can be considered distribution of child pornography. Possession of child pornography is a serious felony in the United States and could lead to a maximum of five years in jail. Distribution, on the other hand, is considered a more serious offense, with a maximum jail sentence of 15 years.

     In Pennsylvania earlier this year, approximately twenty students (both boys and girls) were prosecuted for possessing and distributing a picture of several semi-nude girls, and were given a choice between probation and classes on the dangers of sex abuse or being charged with sexual abuse. While most agreed to take the classes, some are currently appealing the verdict out of principle.

     One of the most momentous developments in the sexting controversy, however, occurred recently in Florida where an 18 year old boy was charged as a sex offender for sending a nude image of his girlfriend to several people after a fight. Indicted with distribution of child pornography, the young man must now undergo probation and is registered as a sex offender, a serious label that will remain with him until he becomes 43.

     In the fall of 2008, a survey conducted by TRU, a world leader in teenage research, revealed that 1 in every 5 teens admits to having sent or posted nude or semi-nude videos or pictures of themselves. Most teenagers understand that there can be serious consequences to sexting (75% according to TRU), but whether those teenagers understand that these pictures can be spread around or that they could lead to several years in jail, is unclear.

     Many parents across the country are outraged at the possibility of prosecution for sexting. If it is true that 20% of all teens are engaging in the illicit practice, then law enforcement may find it difficult to carry out felony prosecution on such a wide scale. The father of one of the students involved in the Massachusetts case said recently that he feels the charges were much too harsh and the boys had “learned their lesson.” This statement echoes the concerns of many across the country who believe that the natural consequences of sexting, which may include harassment or parental punishment, should be enough.

     Still, some prosecutors are trying to drive home the point that sexting should not be a common practice for minors, and are doing so by applying heavy felony charges to those currently involved.

     While many teens and parents may argue that child pornography charges are too severe for young teens in the midst of flirtatious behavior, many judges and district attorneys disagree. Some attorneys believe that these more serious charges are part of a necessary effort to create a precedent that would discourage teens from participating in this highly dangerous behavior. Students, who have had pictures or videos of themselves distributed in the past, have been known to change schools or even commit suicide to avoid the resulting harassment.

     While teenage flirtation is a normal part of adolescence, the stakes have changed. In the digital age, the pictures teenagers take of themselves have lives of their own and may be found months, or even years later on a phone or the Internet. Such was the case with the teenage actor Vanessa Hudgens whose risqué pictures surfaced many years after being taken. So, although no consensus has been reached on a legal or non-legal approach to the problem, it is clear that this issue is far from resolved.