Sexting Teenagers: Who's Responsible for Making Them Stop?

BlogHer Original Post

Our public school system is holding a two-hour session on online dangers next week. An expert whose name I cannot remember and a local cop are going to teach parents, teachers and school officials about cyber bullying, pornography, predators and sexting and provide tools and tips for dealing with these issues with our own children and students.

 

Thinkstock Single Image Set

 

I won't be going. Not because I don't think these issues are important. I do. But I've been thinking about them since 1995 when the company I worked for launched a little product called Cyber Patrol. I myself have led my fair share of sessions about Internet safety, and truth be told, the story is pretty much the same now as it was in 2004 when I left the industry. Tools are useful, but it's parental and teacher involvement and education that really make the difference. 

What I find far more interesting is the fact that 14 states are now considering changing the penalties for sexting (the sending of sexually explicit pictures) by teens. Currently all 50 states and the federal government treat sexting of images of minors as child pornography, even if the sender is the minor him or herself. The story was reported in multiple news outlets last week, including CBS, ABC and the New York Times.

Under child porn laws, this means that a teenager convicted of sexting could end up having to register as a sex offender. It's already happened

Many people, including those driving the proposed changes in the laws, believe that the child porn penalties, developed to punish exploitation of children by adults, don't fit the crime of sexting by teens. Some go as far as decriminalizing it altogether; others simply want to make the punishment suitable to the crime.

For example, the bill in Florida creates the crime of sexting. Quoted on CBS, Fla. State Sen. Dave Aronberg says:

"What we're trying to do is create a new section of the law that says this it is not child porn, but also it's nothing that we should take too lightly, because we don't want naked images of young people floating around on the Internet."

On CBS, legal analyst Jack Ford lays out the issue as largely being about law keeping up with technology. And parental involvement:


Watch CBS News Videos Online

 

My Facebook friend Kim Magnotta Comatas agrees. She responded to my request for opinions on the subject:

"No freaken way! The punishment does NOT fit the crime. Those laws were to protect children from predators, not to have a 17 year old who sent a topless pic be charged and labeled as a sex offender! The laws are changing, but technology changes faster... The most important thing is to educate youth."

On the New York Times Gadgetwise blog, security consultant Mark Rasch tees it up: 

“Imagine in the year 2063, a 70-year-old woman having to post a notice that she is a registered sex offender because of a camera-phone picture she snapped of herself in 2009,” Rasch says. “The combination of poorly drafted laws, new technologies, draconian and inflexible punishments, and teenage hormones make for potentially disastrous results.”

Exactly. We all did stupid stuff when we were teens. Some more than others perhaps, but I'm pretty sure everyone has at least one, two or 10 stupid teen tales.

Luckily for me, my stupidity is history. Undocumented history. I remember. Perhaps my friends remember. My mom remembers the stuff she knew about, and trust me, that wasn't all of it. I was a goody two shoes, but really, not that good. (Sorry, Mum)

Today's teens are not so lucky. They've got tools like Facebook and cell phones that let them be stupider that we could ever have imagined. They can do the stupid stuff and document it, all at the same time. It makes me wonder if the 21st century Keymaster won't be collecting just keys at the senior party, but also cell phones. 

Someone on Twitter responded to my query slightly differently. He said:

"Their parents should be held accountable for giving teens the tech & ability to do so (sext). Restrict ability to do anything but call."

Hhmm. Responsibility. Who is responsible? How do we teach responsibility to our children? What exactly IS responsibility? 

Insurance agency Liberty Mutual has been exploring the issue of responsibility for about a year now. Recently , it released the results of its surveys on the topic, including parents and cyber responsibility. It reported that:

  • 72 percent of parents who allow their children to use social media say they monitor social media activity until age 18
  • 42 percent think it is irresponsible to post pictures of children online

Okay. Fair enough. Interesting even. Parents are monitoring but not that fussed about pictures of their kids online. Seems responsible enough. But it doesn't help us with responsibility in the context of this fairly important problem with our children.

To whit: How do we impress upon our children their responsibility for their own online images? And the permanence of the Internet? Not to mention the damage that ill-considered posting, texting, sexting and tweeting can have on your reputation? And criminal record?

In fairness, that's not Liberty Mutual's problem. It's ours. And it's a tough road. Our teens are no more receptive to our tales of woe and words of warning than we were at that age.

But honestly, the damage they can do to themselves is both worse and farther reaching, even for the straightest arrows, than it was for us. How can we help them be smarter?

I can't tell YOU what to do, but I can tell you what I plan to tell my own kid.

  • Draw the line. Understand that what you post online is effectively forever. Be sure that you can live with what you post or text for a long time. Because you'll have to. And you may have to explain to a friend, a boss or a partner.
  • Respect others. Be kind and be smart.  If someone sends you an inappropriate e-mail or text, you don't have to reply or pass it on.

Will it work? I don't know. But I'm hoping that my kid will get it and avoid these new high tech teen booby traps. What are you doing and saying about these issues in your family? 

 

Susan Getgood blogs at Marketing Roadmaps, Snapshot Chronicles and Snapshot Chronicles Roadtrip.

Comments

In order to comment on BlogHer.com, you'll need to be logged in. You'll be given the option to log in or create an account when you publish your comment. If you do not log in or create an account, your comment will not be displayed.