Should "Sexting" Teens Be Charged As Sex Offenders and Felons?

Jim Liebelt | Senior Writer, Editor and Researcher for the HomeWord Center for Youth and Family at Azusa Pacific University | Thursday, February 5, 2009

Should "Sexting" Teens Be Charged As Sex Offenders and Felons?

There's an emerging debate on whether or not teens who send or receive nude or semi-nude digital photos should be charged as sexual offenders or other serious felony charges. The behavior itself seems to me to be more stupid than felonious, but law enforcement officials, educators, parents, and students are wrestling over what ought to be appropriate consequences for teens who are involved in "sexting." What are your thoughts?

Though youth is fleeting, images sent on a cell phone or posted online may not be, especially if they're naughty.

Teenagers' habit of distributing nude self-portraits electronically — often called "sexting" if it's done by cell phone — has parents and school administrators worried. Some prosecutors have begun charging teens who send and receive such images with child pornography and other serious felonies. But is that the best way to handle it?

"Hopefully we'll get the message out to these kids," says Michael McAlexander, a prosecutor in Allen County, Ind., which includes Fort Wayne. A teenage boy there is facing felony obscenity charges for allegedly sending a photo of his private parts to several female classmates. Another boy was recently charged with child pornography in a similar case.

In some cases, the photos are sent to harass other teens or to get attention. Other times, they're viewed as a high-tech way to flirt. Either way, law enforcement officials want it to stop, even if it means threatening to add "sex offender" to a juvenile's confidential record.

"We don't want to throw these kids in jail," McAlexander says. "But we want them to think."

Dante Bertani, chief public defender in Westmoreland County, Pa., where the students went to court, called the felony charges "horrendous." He says such treatment should be reserved for sex offenders, not teenagers who might've used poor judgment, but meant nothing malicious.

"It should be an issue between the school, the parents and the kids — and primarily the parents and the kids," Bertani says. "It's not something that should be going through the criminal system."

Source: Associated Press

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