The suicide of a 13-year-old who sent a topless photo of herself to a crush is stoking renewed hysteria about teen "sexting," a misnamed phenomenon that hardly requires text and doesn't involve sex. What actually happens is that hormone-addled adolescents take naked photographs of themselves and send them to a crush via their cellphones or email accounts. Being teens, the images often spread like lunchtime gossip, especially after breakups. If you've got a kid in high school, the odds are quite high that he or she has seen photographs of a naked classmate—according to a recent PEW poll, one in seven teens with cellphones admit receiving naked pictures directly.
Tragic stories that begin with “sexting” are all too frequent when principals, police officers, or district attorneys get involved.
In most cases, teens who conceal their sexting from authority figures suffer negligible adverse consequences; they're hardly the first generation to play "I'll show you mine," and even Verizon's 3G network cannot yet transmit sexually transmitted diseases or pregnancy.
Perversely, however, tragic stories that begin with "sexting" are all too frequent when principals, police officers, or district attorneys get involved. The two known suicides attributed to "sexting" actually resulted from adults who exacerbated, rather than stopped, the abhorrent "slut-shaming" that peers callously directed at girls whose naked photos were spread around school; and authority figures in at least six states charge less troubled teens who send naked pictures of themselves with distributing child pornography! Yes, it is possible to be charged with distribution of child pornography for sending out a photograph of yourself—and to be charged with possessing it when a naked photo sent by your high-school girlfriend is stored on your cellphone. Should technology ever permit humans to download our brains' mental images to a hard drive, every last teenager in America will wind up prohibited from living within 10,000 feet of themselves.
In a nationwide survey, USA Today found a few dozen cases of recent "sexting" prosecutions. "In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, Juvenile Court Judge Thomas O'Malley struggled to figure out what to do with eight teens, ages 14 to 17, caught trading nude cellphone pictures of themselves," the story noted in a summary of one case. "If the 17-year-old who sent the nude photos to an ex-boyfriend were convicted of a child-porn charge, he says, she would be a registered sex offender for 20 years."
Or say you're a 16-year-old high-school football player, and one of the cheerleaders sends an unsolicited photograph of herself naked. Open the attachment and express a willingness to receive a second photo—and how many teenage guys wouldn't?—and you might find a police officer at your door telling you that you're facing a possible five years in prison. A churchgoing New York teen did!
These prosecutions make the sex-offender registry less useful for all of us by wasting resources on harmless kids and diminishing what it means to be listed. That child-pornography laws meant to protect sexually naive teens shouldn't be used to imprison and stigmatize them seems, but apparently isn't, self-evident. So why all the fuss? What's behind this hysteria? Why aren't kids caught "sexting" disciplined in the same way prior generations punished adolescents caught playing doctor, or skinny dipping together, or briefly exposing themselves during truth or dare, or playing strip poker while their parents were out of town?
The flawed legal regime—and the lack of will to reform it—suggests that generations who grew up without the Internet or smart phones are somewhat understandably incapable of making clearheaded judgments about their use. These people mistake "sexting" as different in kind rather than degree from what they did as kids, not realizing that the way adults respond is the most significant difference.
Were I parenting a high-school freshman, I'd certainly advise against "sexting," even absent the legal dangers surrounding it, and punish my kid if he or she did it anyway, just as I would if I caught them playing "I'll show you mine" in the bathroom at the school dance, but I wouldn't take "sexting" as a sign of a hyper-sexualized generation, or a shocking harbinger of promiscuity, or evidence that my kid needs counseling, or imagine that I'd raised a teen bereft of modesty.
Nor would I worry that a topless photo would forever corrupt my son or destroy my daughter's future. As the AP reported after a survey of teens, "10 percent said they had sent naked pictures of themselves on their cellphone or online." Does anyone imagine that 10 years from now, when today's teens are college graduates building careers and meeting future spouses, that they're going to be forever stigmatized by a low-res photograph of their naked 15-year-old self? That would seem rather strange considering they'll all have been socialized in high schools where seeing naked low-res pictures of peers was an unexceptional occurrence. The day isn't far off when some future William Jefferson Clinton admits, "I once sexted with my girlfriend, but I wasn't erect," and eight years later every major candidate will fess up to the text messages of their youth, after which the issue will be ignored.
Being the parent of a high-school freshman must be terrifying. There are automobile accidents, alcohol abuse, drug addiction, gang violence, unintended pregnancies, and sexually transmitted diseases to worry about—and the lucky parents who dodge all those taser prongs will most likely face the frightening prospect of college tuition. Is it really so shocking that today's kids are showing one another their bodies digitally, in ways similar to how previous generations bared their bodies in person? The "forward" button is admittedly an added complication, but surely that viral problem isn't so bad that prison sentences and sex offender lists are reasonably prescribed as remedies.
Conor Friedersdorf, a Daily Beast columnist, also writes for The American Scene and The Atlantic Online's ideas blog.