A feature article last month in the New York Times related the disturbing story of a group of middle school students involved in “sexting” – in this case, sending the nude photo of a young girl to possibly thousands of other kids.
The story, which described one misguided attempt by a young girl named “Margarite” (for the purposes of the article) to attract a boy, “Isaiah,” she had just begun to date, was a classic case of mean-girl hijinks spun terribly out of control. After Margarite sent the picture to Isaiah, he forwarded it to her on-again-off-again friend, who then forwarded it to her long list of contacts with a rude message. And off it went.
The story was rife with alarming themes, the least of which is the mean girl conceit. According to the story, while a Pew Research Center study found that boys and girls send photos in roughly the same proportion, photos of girls tend to go viral more often, according to Danah Boyd, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, because boys and girls will circulate girls’ photos in part to shame them.
What parents and school officials are struggling with, according to the article, is the idea that sexting now confers cachet. “Having a naked picture of your significant other on your cell phone is an advertisement that you’re sexually active to a degree that gives you status,” Rick Peters, a senior deputy prosecuting attorney in the high school’s county, told the Times. “It’s an electronic hickey.”
But the real complication in dealing with the fallout from the explicit messages that – almost inevitably – get sent off to all sorts of people for whom they’re not intended, is that when you’re dealing with 14-year-olds, child pornography laws may apply. How to respond to the problem of underage kids picking up an increasingly common – albeit tacky – adult practice? In this case, not only did school officials draft a letter to school families and plan a district-wide voicemail to middle school students’ families, but the county prosecutor charged “Isaiah,” the ex-friend of Margarite, and one other girl with dissemination of child pornography, a Class C felony, because they had set off the viral outbreak.
Response to the Times piece was fervent, with over 350 comments registered that included disbelief at the charges levied against the teens and general disappointment in the growing trend itself. The charged teens ended up making public service announcements, and Margarite moved schools (though her reputation and picture followed her until she decided to return to her original school, where she at least had some friends). And though the debate seems to rage on about whether or not to criminalize the behavior (at least 26 states have tried to pass sexting legislation since 2009), in an age where there’s no keeping kids away from technology, at least we can educate them.
Justin T. Fitzsimmons, a senior attorney at the National District Attorneys Association specializing in Internet crimes against children, told the Times, “We have to protect kids from themselves sometimes. We’re on the cusp of teaching them how to manage their electronic reputations.” Think you have a solution to this troubling and increasingly pervasive problem? Let us know here.