Visit any high school today and you will find teenagers who can pass for twenty-somethings. High heels, low-rise jeans and designer bags are today’s uniform for young girls, starting at increasingly younger ages. And with these grown-up outfits also come grown-up behaviors.
Today’s teen girls are taking nude selfies and texting them to their boyfriends. This trend has parents and school administrators rightfully worried.
For years now, some prosecutors have aggressively targeted the behavior, charging teens who sext with child pornography and other serious felonies. Most recently, the House of Representatives passed the “Protecting Against Child Exploitation Act of 2017,” a bill that subjects teens to mandatory federal prison sentences of 15 years for texting other teens’ explicit images, or even asking for such an image.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA), says it will close loopholes that allow child pornographers to go free.
His intention is good. But is this really the best way to handle this problem?
As with so many adolescent and teen practices enabled by ubiquitous access to cell phones and computers, the underpinnings of sexting are complex. In some cases, the photos are sent with the intent to harass other teens or to get attention. Other times, they are viewed as high-tech flirting.
With an estimated 90 to 95 percent of school kids carrying cell phones, sexting has grown in popularity among teenagers.
Technology makes it easier to do and say things we might not do in person, which is why punishment for sexting ought to be a matter resolved by schools, parents, and kids, without intervention from the criminal justice system or members of Congress. While technically viewed as illegal behavior, these incidents could be construed as a naive exchange between young people oblivious to the far-reaching consequences. Many of the guilty are not even aware they are committing a crime.
The biggest problem with sexting charges is determining who is guilty and who is not. It is unfortunate that the House of Representatives voted down an amendment that would have excluded minors trading photos with other minors from child pornography charges.
Rather than threatening legal action, parents and educators should take this opportunity to point out the potentially long-term repercussions of sexting. And our lawmakers should focus on penalties for actual adult criminals who exploit children.
Stacie D. Rumenap is the president of Stop Child Predators, a non-profit organization in Washington, DC, that prevents the sexual exploitation of children and protects the rights of crime victims. For more information, visit www.stopchildpredators.org.