Sexting is Stupid, But Is It Criminal?

So here’s the story, far as I can make out. A 13 year old Pennsylvania girl texts a topless photo of herself to her 14 year old boyfriend. The boyfriend (in what must have been a titanic exhibition of self-control for a teenage boy) deletes the photo, but the girl’s mother finds the original on the girl’s phone and then …

… and then I get a little fuzzy, because somehow prosecutors get involved.

The mother, it turns out, had reported the photo to the police, and rather than saying, “Well, ma’am, I’m sorry you raised a tart without the morals or common sense the good Lord gave a groundhog, but what do you expect the duly appointed authorities of the Westmoreland County District Attorney’s Office to do about it?” they rushed over to the high-school (this despite the fact that the incident occurred off school grounds, over a weekend), seized the boy’s phone (which contained no photos that were in violation of any statutes), and charged him and the girl.

See, under new and tougher Pennsylvania laws aimed at curbing sexting, this may well be a crime. In taking a picture of herself, the girl became a child pornographer. In receiving it, the boy became complicit in the action. God help him if he’d saved it, and if he’d forwarded it to anyone, he would have been in even bigger trouble.

The incident took place in the town of Greensburg, location of a notorious 2008 sexting incident in which six teens were charged for sexting. The girls (ages 14 and 15) were charged with “manufacturing, disseminating or possessing child pornography,” and the boys (16 and 17 years old) with possession.

Let me be very clear: sexting is dumb, reckless, and irresponsible. No one with even a shred of a scintilla of understanding about technology would ever do it. People think technology is predictable, but technology is just a tool and it’s no more predictable than the person who uses it. And when that person is a hormonally engorged teenager in the moral wasteland that is modern society, that technology is a runaway train.

That is why good parenting is essential where technology is concerned. Careful discussions about phones, computers, game systems, and the internet (all of which are privileges  not rights, even if “everyone else has one”) need to involve the proper use of those devices, the limits and boundaries, the moral context, and the violations that will mean their temporary or permanent loss. This involves routine inspections of any device, surrendering all passwords to any social media or email account, and time limits for their use. It also involves, for teenagers of dating age, discussions about issues like sexting.

You may not believe you actually need to say, “Never take or send a nude picture of yourself” to your child. Say it anyway.

If you’ve failed so utterly at being a parent that your 13 year old would think nothing of photographing her own nude body and broadcasting it into the aether, then you can always just scare the living hell out of them with any number of horror stories about sexting gone wrong. But having it end up in the courtroom with a criminal case, a ruined reputation, legal fees, and strangers gazing at the very picture (now protected and saved as “evidence”) you never wanted anyone to see?

That’s madness. This is something for parents, priests, and counselors to deal with. It’s something for hard discipline and family discussions. It’s not something for the courts, and I (reluctantly) find myself siding with the ACLU in their opposition to this case, not on dubious free speech grounds, but one common sense grounds that’s its a personal and moral–not a civil or legal–matter.

Because by the time the girl took that picture and sent it, the mistakes had already been made, and they were the mistakes of the parents. The proper response to learning your daughter had sent a nude photo of herself? Contact they boy’s parents and gather everyone to discuss what happened to the picture, if it was seen by anyone else, and if was forwarded to anyone. Act like adults and explain why this was deeply wrong and irresponsible.

And then you introduce both of them to a fine old piece of Roman technology: concrete. Place both phones on the sidewalk, lift a cinder block to about 5 feet, and drop. Then tell them they can replace them in four years.

About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • http://decentfilms.com SDG

    “Is it criminal?” I’m not sure I understand the question. Under Pennsylvania’s sexting law, apparently, it is a summary offense. (The boy’s culpability, if I understand correctly, was requesting the photo in the first place.) Whether it should be a crime is another question, but I don’t see the grounds for questioning whether it is. Am I missing something?

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    I was going more for the philosophical “is,” as in “should it be,” rather than the practical “is,” as in “does it violate current state law.” As for the statutes, there is some question about whether this case fits.

    But, more to the point: is this where parents really want these cases going? I understand when morality collapses the little laws rush in to fill the gaps, but that doesn’t make it a good solution. I don’t think either justice or mercy is served by jamming dumb teens headfirst into the legal system, which can be capricious on the best of days.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    If it’s not criminal I would prefer it were.

  • http://davidgriffey.blogspot.com/ Dave G.

    I’m with Manny. If it isn’t illegal, I would like it to be.

  • http://unhappilyagnostic.tumblr.com/ Unhappily Agnostic

    Something relevant here would be the statutory rape laws in Pennsylvania. If it would be legal for a 14 and 13 year old to have intercourse, then it seems absurd to make the sexting illegal. I tried looking it up but got confused by the age-differential rules in Pennsylvania (although the girl is beneath age of consent, for it to be statutory rape it also might have to be the case that the guy is a certain number of years older than her) so I’m not sure if it would be legal.

    Aside from the consistency of laws–I incline tentatively to agree with Thomas. If a law is going to be almost impossible to enforce, you probably shouldn’t pass it, because it decreases respect for the law–and without absurd government oversight of human activity, “self pornography,” or whatever you would want to call it, seems really dang impossible to prevent.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    I should probably clarify that I’m not opposed to laws against sending explicit pictures of minors over networks. I’m just questioning the wisdom of bringing a criminal prosecution to a case that is probably better handled as a family matter.

  • Steve

    You want to make these two children register and sexual predators for the rest of their lives? Put them in prison? I would certainly feel safer if these young criminals are behind bars.

  • Dana Collins

    The things that happened daily online on social networks like Facebook and using social applications on smartphones like the one where teenagers send naked images. I do not understand parents that do not first explain and educate their children AND use some software to monitor them. I recently started using a service called PG guard for my daughters. It constantly monitors their social activity wherever they are and reports back to me of suspicious interactions.


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