‘Sexting’: Zooming Out to See the Bigger Picture

This week, a federal judge blocked a prosecutor from filing child pornography charges against three teenage girls in northeastern Pennsylvania over risque cell phone pictures they took of themselves. This respite from the bizarre “sexting” scandal allows time for a national dialogue on an issue that goes deeper than simple changes in technology.

“Sexting” is short for “sex texting,” or the practice of sending racy pictures via text message. Twenty percent of teens admit to distributing nude photos of themselves, according to a recent survey by the National Campaign to Support Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy — a statistic that probably disturbs parents but shouldn’t surprise anyone who remembers what being a teenager was like.

Relinquishing Individual Responsibility

Teenage hormones are almost always raging, and many teens are reckless and looking for attention. Deploying child pornography laws to deal with this reality is like using a sledgehammer to kill a fly. If the girls are found guilty of these overblown charges, they would face not only the possibility of jail time, but also the requirement to register as sexual offenders for at least 10 years.

Clearly, such harsh punishment would be overkill, but the situation is indicative of the growing mentality that government must play the central role in fixing every problem society encounters.

Whether disciplining teens or restructuring failed automobile companies, government is more often than not becoming the “go-to” place for help. Those on both the political left and right have been involved in this slow move to relinquish individual responsibility in favor of government control, so there is plenty of blame to go around.

Instead of trying to work out the problem with teachers and parents, someone decided to turn over the teens’ photos to police. That is a sign that bureaucratic legalism is pushing aside both common sense and civil society. Americans are a litigious bunch, and this is borne out by the reality that more than one in 100 American adults is behind bars.

Adding normal teenagers to this embarrassment shouldn’t be on the agenda.

‘Re-education Program’

To its credit, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) stepped in on the teens’ behalf last week and filed suit against the prosecutor, claiming that he was “misusing his authority by threatening to bring baseless child-pornography charges in order to coerce parents into sending their children to the re-education program and putting them on probation.”

The “re-education” program would have supposedly helped the girls “gain an understanding of how [their] actions were wrong, gain an understanding of what it means to be a girl in today’s society,” and “identify nontraditional societal and job roles.”

Wow — since when did government become the authority on a girl’s role in society? At this point in history, one might add, government is hardly a model of propriety — fiscal, moral or otherwise.

The ACLU also argues that the images snapped by the teens are not pornographic and are thus protected as First Amendment speech. However, having to resort to free-speech arguments in what should be a simple community case is a bad sign in terms of how America is dealing with standard issues when they meet new technological realities.

Proper Boundaries

It’s entirely possible that some of the teachers who handed this issue to the prosecutor have taken nude photos of themselves with a Polaroid, perhaps when they were “young and foolish.” Clearly, this is not a new issue, but it is indeed more pressing given that pictures can now be easily copied and distributed en masse and that the law enforcement community is viewing such actions as child pornography, bizarrely making the so-called victim also the criminal.

Treating teen sexting as child pornography is an insult to anyone who has ever suffered from real child abuse, and it won’t solve the problem.

Yes, teens need to be taught that anything they put online can affect both their personal and professional lives for years to come. This is the job of parents and schools, not a heavy-handed legal system that defies common sense and oversteps the proper boundaries of government.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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