Ending the national panic on ‘sexting’

Text messages are forcing us to rethink the way we deal with the difficult issues that arise when teenagers get involved with sex; The Times addressed this touchy issue in its June 1 editorial, “Keeping an eye on ‘sexting.’ " Some in law enforcement have taken extreme measures against teens who send sexually explicit words and images using cellphones and Internet sites. Their solution? Treat these kids just like adults who traffic in pornographic pictures of children.

For instance, 19-year-old Philip Alpert will remain on the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Sexual Offender Registry until he is 43 because he sent several dozen people a nude picture of his 16-year-old ex-girlfriend -- a photo she sent to him first. In Pennsylvania, three girls, 14 to 15, sent three boys, 16 to 17, naked pictures of themselves. All six kids were charged with child pornography.

During the past year, more than two dozen teens in at least six states have been investigated by police for sexual texting, or sexting, the sending or possession of sexually charged photos or messages. A recent “Sex and Tech” survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found that about one in five teens have sent nude or semi-nude pictures or videos of themselves. Sexting, it turns out, is all too common.

As the prevalence of sexting cases continue to come to light, many states are grappling to determine an appropriate punishment for this frightening new trend. With no federal law on the books, kids committing the same act in different states are finding themselves facing drastically different, sometimes life-altering, punishments.

In Ohio, sexting is considered a felony. If convicted, a person could face years in prison and is required to register as a sex offender. Just a few states away in Missouri, under proposed legislation, sexting would be classified as a misdemeanor. In Illinois, lawmakers recently passed an anti-sexting bill that would not charge the person who is in the photo, but rather anyone who forwards the message to a third party without consent.

For parents, this new trend is no doubt alarming. It is important to bear in mind that teen brains are still undergoing development. Impulse control, the ability to weigh consequences and hormonal-emotional spikes are not the same for adults and teens. Making matters even more complicated, much of our technology, including text messages, is fairly new. As a society, we are still working through our standards.

As parents, we need to take responsibility for monitoring our children’s technology use. Regularly check your child’s Facebook and MySpace profiles. Know what text messages your kids are sending and receiving and who they are communicating with online. Talk to your kids about sexting and make sure they realize what the consequences are even if they do not get caught. Sexual photos are rarely only seen by the original recipient. In the Sex and Tech survey, one-third of teen boys said they have had nude or semi-nude images, originally meant for someone else, shared with them.

Our laws need to catch up with this technology. Right now the laws in different jurisdictions are inconsistent, confusing and, in some cases, ridiculous. In some states, for example, a conscientious parent who finds a provocative picture of his daughter while checking her cellphone could be charged with a felony for viewing child pornography. I believe that there should be a consequence to get kids’ attention, but teen stupidity merits a misdemeanor, not a life-ruining felony.

As a nation, we have to rise to the occasion if we want our children to fully understand what sex really means in a young person’s life. Sexy videos on TV and racy sites on the Internet tell kids sex is no big deal. Some state officials are teaching them it’s criminal in the extreme. If we want them to grow up to be happy, healthy adults we need to give them guidance and clear standards.

David Walsh is the founder and president of the National Institute on Media and the Family and author of “Why Do They Act That Way? A Survival Guide to the Adolescent Brain for You and Your Teen.”

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