The beginnings of some rational responses to sexting

Mar 22, 2010 6:34pm

By Michael Kaiser, NCSA Executive Director

Sexting, the sending of explicit photos via text message or email, is but the latest example of how new technologies can cause unintended social issues and leave our institutions—schools and law enforcement in this case—without adequate or reasonable policies to respond.

Sexting is not a new behavior; it is one that is accelerated by technology. As smart phones become more robust with the addition of cameras, video and internet capabilities, it’s easier than ever to capture all manners of images and with a couple of quick clicks share them with another person or a group of people.  Most often these tools are used for their primary purpose: documenting people and events. That people take and send intimate photos themselves should not surprise anyone.  And the fact that young people, in particular, might then share intimate photos with others is hardly surprising either.

The real question is what do we do about it? As fast as technology changes and infuses our lives, laws and polices take a long time to catch up.  In the case of sexting, when young people share intimate photos of others to embarrass, retaliate, or bully there has been no legal framework developed specifically to address the behavior. Law enforcement and prosecutors, left with few choices, have prosecuted for the distribution of child pornography for the sharing of images if people under the age of 18. If convicted, this could mean serving time in prison and being registered as a sex offender for life.

It’s not just young people being caught in the crosshairs of the law and the advent of texting. In one case, a school administrator in Virginia was arrested and charged (eventually with charges dismissed a year later) with possession of child pornography when in addressing a disciplinary problem in the school that involved a suggestive picture that was being sent around,  he asked a student to send the picture to his phone and then put it on his computer. Technically this was a crime; it took more than a year, significant legal fees, and the near ruin of a person's career before the situation was straightened out.

In schools, the confluence of technology with behavior that may or may not occur on campus is confusing for administrators, teachers, parents, and children. As a society we rely on schools to help address social issues, but it takes time for them to find their way into the classroom. We need to expedite that process so schools address emerging technology in everyday life. 

At NCSA topics like, sexting fall into the category of cyberethics, or participating civilly in digital society. Recent research by NCSA conducted with support from Microsoft on what’s being taught in the classroom on these issues found that: nearly a third of all teachers had taught not topics related to cyberethics and only 22% reported teaching specifically about sexting, although more than 90% of teachers thought these topics should be taught in schools.

A recent story in the New York Times, suggests that maybe there is some rationality coming into the policy debate. States are starting to look at the sharing of picture between consenting young people and differentiating those from cases from other offenses.  For example, the article states a, “ new Nebraska law makes that distinction, giving a pass to children under 18 who send out their own photograph to a willing recipient who is at least 15. On the other hand, a teenager who passes the photograph on to friends could face a felony child pornography charge and five years in prison.”

That seems like a pretty reasonable approach. However, let’s be sure that when we set new standards for behaviors, that we do young people the service of educating them about being productive civil members of the communities—digital and physical—in which they live.

SSO (stay safe online),