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The once-innocent “I’ll show you mine you mine, you show me yours” game has gone digital these days, with up to 28 percent of teens sending each other sexually suggestive photos or messages via cell-phone, or sexting.
The penalties are anything but child’s play, however. Sexting is considered a crime when it involves sending nude pictures of anyone under 18, according to Dr. Elizabeth Englander, the director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University.
One expert argues that thinking is all wrong, though.
“There’s no harm done to anyone in consensual sexting,” University of Colorado Denver New Media professor Amy Hasinoff, author of the upcoming-book, Sexting Panic: Rethinking Criminalization, Privacy, and Consent, tells Yahoo Parenting.
“If there’s no harm or privacy violation, then there’s no need to hold anyone accountable,” she adds. What law enforcement needs to address, she notes, is “coercion, harassment and privacy violations.”
The legal debate was on in full force during a Nov. 6 Twitter discussion about sexting hosted by PBS News Hour. @EdwardHLadson called sexting “child porn distributed by children” and advocated for legal crackdown regardless of consent. Meanwhile @emily_mckenna argued legal action should be taken only if a sexter is exploited. “Recipient should be held accountable if he/she then spreads what was meant to be private pic” she writes. But making sexting illegal is “useless. You’d have ½ of USA’s teens in jail.”
Typically, the cases selected for prosecution, as felonies under state child-pornography laws, involve adults. But, Englander writes, “whether the authorities are actively choosing not to prosecute more run-of-the-mill sexting, or whether they are prosecuting teen-on-teen sexting but simply rarely seeing it, is unclear.”
That’s of vital consideration for the 78 percent of teens who own cell phones (one-third of whom send out more than 3,000 text messages a month), who with one Instagram post of a provocative selfie – or a foolish post with someone else’s – could find themselves subjected to child pornography laws intended for adult sexual predators and risk becoming branded as registered sex offenders.
Of the 20-odd states that have passed sexting laws to address the issue more specifically, most dole out relatively light penalties (think fines, community service or attending a class on the topic), writes Hanna Rosin in "Why Kids Sext" in the Atlantic. “Where they’ve been passed, the new laws have helpfully taken ordinary teen sexting out of the realm of child pornography and provided prosecutors with a gentler alternative,” she reports. “But they have also created deeper cultural confusion, by codifying into law the idea that any kind of sexting between minors is a crime.”
“Freedom of expression says you can create pics of yourself,” added @BrainToday. “How you distribute pics may cross lines of harassment…”
Yet for @BeAboveTheFray, it’s all ultimately within mom and dad’s jurisdiction: “The responsibility in all of this lies with parents. They have to parent online as much as offline.”
And while professor Hasinoff disagrees that there’s a need for policing within consensual sexting, she concurs that kids’ parents do need to get involved. “They need to teach their kids – boys and girls – to understand and respect consent and privacy.”