Over the past few weeks, the web’s been abuzz with articles, blog posts, and comments about sexting, the practice of sending explicit photos (and sometimes texts and videos as well) over the Internet. Repeatedly, the coverage points to a not-so-recent nationwide study from late 2008, which surveyed over 1,200 respondents, ages 13-26, and revealed that 20% of teens (ages 13-19) and 33% of young adults (ages 20-26) have posted or sent nude or semi-nude photographs of themselves to others. Given the heavy marketing of cell phones, it’s likely that the numbers for 2010 are higher. And keep in mind that the statistics in the study only reflect the number of times images have been shared or forwarded to intended viewers.
Given the laws on the books in most states, according to a recent New York Times article by Tamar Lewis, teens who send sexually explicit images risk facing child pornography charges and being listed on sex offender registries for decades to come. But laws vary from state to state, with some localities having much tougher penalties than others. Last year Utah, Vermont, and Nebraska changed their state laws to reduce what seemed like harsh penalties that were on the books. This year, another fourteen states are considering lessening what teens might be charged with, in an attempt to differentiate teens’ interests and activities from pornographers and sexual predators.
There’s one ongoing case in Tunkhannock, PA that’s being closely watched. In October 2008, nude and semi-nude photos of girls were found on students’ phones, which were confiscated and turned over to local authorities. According to a recent online article by Nathan Gorenstein for the Philadelphia Inquirer, the district attorney at the time told parents that any student who appeared in a photo but did not voluntarily attend an “educational program” of his choosing would be charged with charged with child pornography. Of the dozen kids involved, the parents of three of them sued rather than send their children to the course, and in mid-March, a federal appellate court ruled in their favor, saying the over-zealous DA had gone too far.
The issues surrounding sexting are complicated. Is sexting protected under freedom of speech? Is it illegal for minors to appear in pictures they take of themselves? Is it illegal for them and/or others to possess and distribute them? In the mid-20th century, as Hugh Hefner describes in the story he wrote for click! photography changes everything piece, the Post Office threatened to refuse Playboy magazine a second class mailing permit to mail its first issue but subsequently dropped its case in court. Given how easily “private” messages and images can end up being widely circulated on the web, people are wondering if writing new legislation is the right solution to a growing problem, or if devising and funding better education programs to alert teens to the risks involved in sexting will be more practical and effective. To see how one example of how this issue played out in a college student’s life, watch this video in which both he and two on-air commentators try to puzzle through some of the complex issues at stake: