Many parents these days are justifiably concerned about “sexting” - the sharing of nude photos or other sexually-oriented material over the internet. It’s become an alarmingly common practice among teens (and even preteens!), who tend to have a rather nonchalant attitude about it. It’s so widespread that most kids see it as a normal and harmless activity.
Aside from whatever perceived moral implications there are and regardless of how shocking or inappropriate it may seem to parents, most sexting probably is rather harmless. Especially if it’s between two consenting people in a relationship. Of course, no one wants a very young child sharing nude photos with anyone, consenting or not, but the fact remains that it happens all the time.
And, of course, there are laws designed to protect young people from sexual exploitation, but there are problems that can arise when these laws are invoked. Sometimes the very ones whom the laws are intended to protect end up becoming victims of the legal system itself.
It’s difficult to know just how and when to apply the laws, especially considering the lack of updated legal guidelines designed to deal with the relatively new communication technology and how it should be used.
Although authorities are doing their best to enforce the laws regarding sex and minors, sometimes the punishment is far worse than the crime. There are a number of questions with no easy answers regarding sexting and the law, but before we examine these dilemmas let’s take a look at a recent case which illustrates the issues I’m referring to.
A Case in Point
Two North Carolina 16-year-olds were accused of violating federal child pornography laws and were charged with felony exploitation of a minor.
The victims happened to be the children themselves. In what many legal experts have condemned as a ridiculous misapplication of the law, the two teens were charged with the crime after it was discovered that they possessed nude photos of themselves on their cell phones.
The girl accepted a plea offer deal, which allowed her to escape becoming a registered sex offender, but the boy was charged as an adult. He was convicted on four counts of creating and possessing naked images of himself and for possessing a nude image of his girlfriend. The boy was subjected to various penalties, including warrantless searches by police for one year.
The most ironic aspect of this entire fiasco was the fact that the age of consent in North Carolina is 16, which means that the teens - who were both 16 at the time - are legally permitted to have sex, but are technically prohibited from having nude photos of each other.
How Did This Happen?
As I mentioned before, there are few up to date laws addressing these types of issues. The laws protecting children from sexual exploitation were written long before smartphones and texting existed.
Fred Lane, author and internet security/privacy expert said:
“This goes back to the supreme court making child pornography unconstitutional in 1983 and each state legislating in line with that for the public good – in order to protect children from adults producing, possessing or distributing nude images of them.
“But that was before anyone thought kids would be making and sending nude photos of themselves with publicly available digital technology.”
At the state level, legislators are trying figure out how to approach the issue. 20 states have passed what are called “Romeo and Juliet” laws designed to protect consenting teens from being charged with felonies for sexting.
But in many of these states, sexting is still a crime - a misdemeanor - although teens who are charged generally are only subjected to “diversion” education designed to help them make responsible decisions.
In the rest of the nation, however, there are no laws on the books to mitigate teens being charged with. That means in 30 states teens may be charged with violating federal child pornography laws for merely possessing nude images of themselves.
Cases like the one in North Carolina are relatively rare. North Carolina is a conservative state, and according to Fred Lane, there are around ten or twelve states which are likely to take a hard-liner approach to enforcing these laws.
But whether you live in one of the conservative states or not, your child could still be charged with a crime for engaging in sexting activities and the results could be quite serious.
Strategies for Parents
Good communication between parents and children regarding appropriate online behavior is key. Talk to your child about sexting and make sure they understand the legal as well as the social implications.
But the fact that one in five kids admit to having shared nude or partially nude photos online might make parents want to take even stronger precautions.
By far, the most effective way to protect a child and keep an eye on their online activities is through the installation of mobile monitoring software onto their smartphones or tablets. These apps, also known as spy apps, allow parents to view and control a child’s online activities - remotely and discreetly.
Parents have the option of letting the child know - or not - that their phone is being monitored. That decision is up to individual parents and may be based on a number of factors.
Although many parents may not like the idea of snooping or violating a child’s privacy, more and more experts and parents have come to the conclusion that the right to privacy is outweighed by the many potential dangers a child may encounter online, sexting being only one of them.