Update the law: 'Sexting' is teen foolishness, not something worse

Written by Susan Mannella on .

Teenagers do a lot of stupid things and when they do, it's up to adults to make sure that the punishment doled out is proportionate to the offense.

That's not the case now regarding the latest foolish practice taken up by teens -- "sexting," in which they send nude or sexually explicit photos of themselves and others using their cell phones. A study released last month by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project said 4 percent of teens surveyed said they had sent out sexually explicit photos or videos of themselves and 15 percent of those aged 12 to 17 who own cell phones said they had received nude or nearly nude photos. The messages may be sent as flirtations or in anger or retribution.

No matter the motivation, people who engage in sexting risk more than their reputations or embarrassment. They could end up with a felony conviction on their records and designation as sex offenders.

That's because there is not a specific crime of sexting, and prosecutors have been applying existing laws to the new practice. A person who sends nude pictures by phone now can be charged with open lewdness, which is a minor offense of disorderly conduct, or far more serious violations of child pornography laws.

The intention of a bill introduced in the state House is to add a layer of protection for young people under age 18. It says "any minor who knowingly transmits in an electronic communication, a depiction of himself or herself or of another minor who is 13 years of age or older in a state of nudity commits a misdemeanor of the second degree."

The revisions in House Bill 2189, introduced by Republican Rep. Seth Grove of York, likely would prevent cases like two recent ones in Pennsylvania. In Westmoreland County, six teens -- three girls and their boyfriends -- were charged with crimes related to child pornography. If convicted, they could have been labeled as sex offenders. In Wyoming County, the district attorney threatened to prosecute 16 teens under pornography statutes unless they attended an after-school class and wrote an essay explaining why sexting is wrong. Three girls refused and the case of one, a 16-year-old, now is pending before the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Applying child pornography laws to those circumstances perverted the intent of laws designed to protect children from sexual exploitation by adults.

The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association agrees that Mr. Grove's proposal strikes the right balance by bringing state law up to date with current technology. It should result in more appropriate responses when teens behave inappropriately by sexting.


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