Everyone agrees that kids texting images of themselves naked is a bad idea. But the verdict is out on what should be done about it.
The practice is common enough to have its own cutesy nickname: sexting. And while it's a national phenomenon, Western Pennsylvania is a hotbed for the debate about how, or whether, police should respond.
Six kids in Greensburg and 10 in Fayette County were charged in January with child pornography for sharing images of themselves. The three Greensburg girls who sent the images were charged with manufacturing, disseminating or possessing child pornography, and the boys who received them faced charges of possession. The cases attracted attention from Newsweek magazine and other media outlets.
The district attorney's office in Westmoreland County declined to answer any questions on the charges, citing the need for confidentiality in matters concerning juveniles. But Fayette County assistant district attorney Phyllis Jin told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that "Hopefully, it will stop if we file the charges. I understand the kids are exploring ... but they don't realize what they're getting into is a problem, and what they're doing is wrong."
"It's very dangerous," Greensburg police Captain George Seranko told reporters. While an image may be shared between friends, once it's sent by cell phone, "[I]t can be put on the Internet where everybody in the world can get access to [it]."
By February, five of the six Greensburg kids pled guilty to lesser misdemeanor charges, thus avoiding potentially having to register as sex offenders. But the charges raise the question: Is this child porn? Is threatening a felony conviction an appropriate response?
"This is a massive overreaction," says Christopher J. Ferguson, professor of psychology at Texas A&M. Ferguson studies how emerging technology, be it video games or iPhones, is received by society. "Nobody's saying this was a good idea on the part of the teen-agers. They should be grounded, have their cell phones taken away, some kind of public-education component."
Then again, Ferguson adds, "In my opinion, it's something we would have done too, if we'd had the cell phones." But because "society's elders" didn't have cell-phones, he says, they tend to react fearfully to new technologies they don't understand.
"As new media forms come out, a lot of attention gets drawn to it and it gets demonized," he says. "It's a cycle. Every time Grand Theft Auto comes out there's hysteria ... It's the same thing all over: 'These kids with their rap music and their Internet!' Oh my God, why was anybody ever worried about jazz? Novels? Comic books? In retrospect, it looks silly."
According to an online survey of 1,280 people between the ages of 13 and 26 by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 39 percent of teens have sent or posted sexually suggestive images of themselves, and 48 percent have received them. And Rebecca Gudeman, a senior staff attorney with the National Center for Youth Law, agrees that sexting is a problem, since even the most innocently intentioned pictures can fall into the wrong hands.
But when prosecutors uncover such incidents, she says, they ought "to look at the real intent" of child-pornography laws. "It was to protect children from predators. That's not what's going one when you have children exploring their sexuality."
While it's fitting to have severe penalties in place for adults who exploit children, "The laws have to be drafted so that kids who don't have the intent don't get caught up in criminal cases," Gudeman says by phone from Oakland, Calif.
The Pennsylvania prosecutions, Gudeman says, recall the misapplication of statutory-rape laws. Such laws are meant to keep adults away from teens, but "I have met kids who are on probation for having consensual sex. In a lot of states, we have statutory-rape laws that effectively make it illegal for kids to have sex with each other. If they get a criminal record they would be on a sex-offender list in some states."
Gudeman says a smarter approach is education. She points to the Web site www.thatsnotcool.com, an interactive site that makes use of YouTube videos of (presumably teen-aged) puppets faced with pressure to send naked pictures of themselves to boyfriends or girlfriends, or who receive unwanted images.
The site is a joint project of the Family Violence Prevention Fund, the Ad Council and the Office on Violence Against Women. It's had a quarter-million unique visitors since going live in January.
"I think the problem is the vast majority of prosecutions represent a failure to prevent," says Brian O'Connor, director of public communication for the FVPF. "If we do continue going down that route of prosecuting, we'll sacrifice too many of our kids to their mistakes rather than protecting them."
O'Connor says the site was developed after workshops with kids, teens and young adults -- and the phrase "That's not cool" was one the young people used constantly.
Users watch a short video where a puppet kid faces a dilemma -- one girl is getting barraged with requests for naked pictures from her boyfriend. Then, they choose from three outcomes -- she can send the pictures, tell him to buzz off or send a picture of her dog's butt. Each situation plays out, and it's clear what choice the girl should make. (While the dog's-butt option could seem droll and harmless, the puppet says that not even the dog should have his privacy invaded that way.)
O'Connor says that while the question of why teens are sexting is worth asking, the answers may never come, or may never be cut-and-dried. Simple poor judgment probably accounts for a lot of it, he says, but sometimes it may signal the propensity for more damaging behavior down the line.
"We feel like it's really important not to just tell kids what is appropriate, but to have them be empowered to draw their digital line," O'Connor says. "Technology amplifies the consequences of kids' mistakes."
It's important for kids to recognize pressure to do something they don't want to do, Gudeman says, and to realize that decisions they make now, in the heat of hormone-addled nascent sexual lives, can have lasting consequences.
"[W]e've seen kids experimenting with sex and sexuality since the moment human beings stepped on the earth," Gudeman says. "Now that we have new technology, there's new ways to do it. It's just educating folks about what is appropriate and safe."
"It's the issue of teen sexuality," says Ferguson, of Texas A&M. "Most adults would prefer not to think about it."