Ethical Debate Swirls over Teen 'Sexting'

Jennifer Golson and Joe Ryan | Religion News Service | Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Ethical Debate Swirls over Teen 'Sexting'

April 1, 2009

In Pennsylvania, authorities are threatening to prosecute three teenage girls after finding risque images of them on a cell phone.

In Indiana, a middle-school boy faces obscenity charges for transmitting naked photos of himself to female classmates.

And in New Jersey, authorities recently accused a 14-year-old girl of distributing child pornography, saying she posted nude portraits of herself on MySpace.

In a growing number of states, law enforcement agencies are cracking down on teens who use cell phones and social networking sites to share lurid photographs. Prosecutors say they are trying to stamp out a dangerous trend, also called "sexting." But their use of stringent child-pornography and sex-offender laws has ignited a debate.

"Do we really want to tag this 14-year-old girl as a sex offender for the next 30 years?" asked Bill Albert, spokesman for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. "Communities nationwide are scratching their heads about what role, if any, law enforcement should play in these cases."

A key hurdle for prosecutors is that technology has outpaced the legal system. Most states don't have laws specifically addressing teens who transmit explicit images, a practice sometimes referred to as "sexting."

The only New Jersey laws applicable to the 14-year-old girl are those designed for sexual predators and child pornography traffickers, said Parry Aftab, executive director of the nonprofit group

Authorities suspect the girl, arrested March 24, took and posted nearly 30 explicit images of herself for her boyfriend to see. If true, it makes for an unusual criminal case: The victim is also the perpetrator.

Nonetheless, the consequences could be serious. If convicted of distributing child pornography, the 14-year-old could be forced to register with the state as a sex offender under Megan's Law.

A chief assistant prosecutor declined to comment on specifics of the girl's case. Speaking generally, however, she said it is unlikely a minor with no criminal record would be forced to register as a sex offender.

Yet the mere prospect of invoking Megan's Law troubles some legal scholars and children's advocates. They say a statute intended for serial child molesters should not be used to punish an indiscreet teen who gets carried away with high-tech flirting.

Even Maureen Kanka, the mother of the girl after whom Megan's Law is named -- a 7-year-old raped and killed by a twice-convicted sex offender living nearby -- said the 14-year-old girl should be undergoing counseling, not prosecution.

About 20 percent of teenagers say they have sent or posted nude or semi-nude pictures or videos of themselves, according to a survey released in December by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. Roughly a third of 20-somethings said the same, according to the study, which interviewed nearly 1,300 people.

The phenomenon is vexing to both parents and prosecutors.

Such images floating in cyberspace can sink the best of college or job applications. They can become painfully embarrassing. Teens can use them to harass one another. And they can attract predators, said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

Prosecutors in New Jersey and around the country have addressed the problem in different ways.

Last September, school officials in Hillsborough, N.J., alerted police after learning a high-school girl had sent a nude picture of herself to a boy. The image was ultimately circulated to multiple students, some of them in middle school.

But the girl was never charged. Later, police officers visited local schools to talk to students about Internet safety.

"They went over the criminal laws and penalties they can face by transmitting any pornography," Hillsborough Police Chief Paul Kaminsky said.

Authorities learned of the 14-year-old's pictures about a month ago.

Officials at discovered the images and contacted the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Allen said. In turn, the center called the local sheriff's department.

The teen was charged with child pornography and distribution of child pornography, and then released to her mother. The girl faces up to 17 years in jail.

David Wald, a spokesman for state Attorney General Anne Milgram, said prosecutors have been instructed to proceed cautiously. "We have asked the ... prosecutor to review this matter and consult with us before taking any further action," he said.

Allen said that whenever appropriate, authorities should start by working with parents. But there are times, he said, when criminal charges are necessary.

Allen said the balance is delicate: If authorities clamp down too hard on teens who post or text naked photographs of themselves, they risk worsening already painful situations for the youngsters. But if they don't clamp down enough, the problem will persist.

"You need to respond to it seriously," Allen said, "but clearly you don't want to ruin a girl's life."

Jennifer Golson and Joe Ryan write for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.

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