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Posted at 9:00 AM ET, 04/16/2010

What should happen to kids who sext?

By Valerie Strauss

When the principal of a well-regarded Bethesda middle school learned that kids had bought and sold sexual images of girls who were said to have willingly posed for them, he called in Montgomery County police to investigate.

Pyle Middle School Principal Michael J. Zarchin had no choice but to bring in authorities to see if any laws had broken.

But that doesn’t mean the kids should have the legal book thrown at them. This should be handled outside the law. Surely there should be some consequences, but these young people are not criminals.

Kids do stupid things--not all of them all the time, but enough of them enough of the time so that it is up to adults to help save them from themselves.

This is especially true in this era of sexting, when technology gives kids a tool to make really humiliating mistakes that will follow them into adulthood.

There is no consensus about how to deal with young people who sext, in a culture where sexually explicit images are everywhere.

In many states, kids who send or receive sexually explicit photos or videos by cellphone or computer risk being declared sex offenders--a label that will affect them for the rest of their lives--and charged with child pornography, according to a recent New York Times story.

More than a dozen states are considering reducing the penalties for sexting, and last year, Nebraska, Utah and Vermont did. Nebraska law, for example, now differentiates between sexting activities: There’s no penalty for kids under 18 who send their own sexually explicit picture to a recipient who wants to receive it and is at least 15 years old. But a teen who then forwards the image to other people can face child pornography charges, a felony that can bring five years in prison.

With thousands of kids sexting every day, it doesn’t make much sense to criminalize all of them.

In fact, Rosalind Wiseman, who spent months researching the subject for a recent article in Family Circle, said she believes sexting is more common than current statistics suggest--and even those show that it is widespread. In 2008, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found that 20 percent of kids 13 to 19 had sent partially or completely nude pictures of themselves or someone they knew.

“I don’t think it’s possible to walk down the hallway [of many schools today] today and not see a naked picture of someone [on a student’s cell phone],” she told me.

Parents, she said, have to stop burying their heads in the sand.

They should talk plainly with their children about why sending these pictures is wrong, and why forwarding them is just as bad or worse.

“Parents should tell kids, ‘Even if you get it and send it, I’m going to consider you responsible for the humiliation of another individual.’”

And parents should reconsider allowing kids to have cellphones, certainly at night. That’s when a lot of inappropriate material is sent.

“I say to parents: “Tell your child that the use of a cell phone is a privilege and not a right. Use it as an extension of our family values. If you use it to humiliate someone, I take it away.”

Cell phone manufacturers should reintroduce phones without cameras. Kids don’t really need them. And parents should not by shy about checking out what their kids are doing online.

It is often useful for kids to learn from their mistakes. Sometimes, though, it’s better to stop them from making mistakes that will haunt them.

What do you think should be the consequences for kids who sext? What about the kids who send their own pictures? Kids who pass pictures to others?


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By Valerie Strauss  | April 16, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Health, Montgomery County Public Schools, Parents  | Tags:  Pyle Middle School, Pyle and sexting, Pyle sexting scandal, Rosalind Wiseman, Whitman and sexting, sexting, sexting and Pyle and WHitman  
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This is clearly a situation for parents to work with their children to explain that this kind of activity is stupid. Period. If kids persist in abusing the privilege of having a cellphone, then the parents can introduce the concept of there being consequences for bad behavior. Take the phone away.

Posted by: sanderling5 | April 16, 2010 9:15 AM | Report abuse

I agree that a majority of this activity should be handled by parents and not the legal system.

Those who actually offered and sold the images to their peers were in fact selling child pornography and should be dealt with by the legal system.

Posted by: dogbacchus | April 16, 2010 9:54 AM | Report abuse

sexting amongst kids should be handled by parents. any school administrator who comes in contact of such material should simply delete the pictures and then inform the parents.
I am talking about pictures that merely feature nudity. topless photos, or even full frontal pictures of simple nudity do not merit police attention. any pose that could also be seen in the national portrait gallery in a work of art does not merit police attention.
it's only when those photos are of graphically sexual intercourse and might include adults or animals and depict illegal activity etc, should the police be contacted and involved.
minors have a right to express themselves and the human body is nothing to be ashamed of.
but kids should not be disrupting school by passing around these images while at school.

Posted by: MarilynManson | April 16, 2010 10:06 AM | Report abuse

The parents should be checking their cell phones and e-mail accounts or facebook pages often.

Posted by: celestun100 | April 16, 2010 10:12 AM | Report abuse

My kid would have had his electronics nixed for the next year. This is a parental issue, not for the legal system.

Posted by: jckdoors | April 16, 2010 11:33 AM | Report abuse

I'm the parent of 2 kids at NCC and Westland in Montgomery County. Whether and how kids use ever-more-powerful cell phones is each family's decision. To help families have a platform to address the issues that invariably come up, I founded a company called kajeet - based in Bethesda - that provides a contract-free cell phone service with free, Web-based parental controls. With this, families can decide who can call/text in and out of the phone, when, which services are allowed, who pays for what. If you wish, you can turn off Picture Mail to prevent 'sexting.' We also offer GPS. Interested readers can learn more at the kajeet web site. --Daniel Neal, CEO & Founder, kajeet Inc.

Posted by: dneal1 | April 16, 2010 11:40 AM | Report abuse

While it would be difficult to find someone who doesn't feel sad, mad, or just plain disgusted with this situation, it would be helpful if the media would clarify just what is and what is not child pornography under Maryland law. Seems like that step has been skipped.

Posted by: momof22 | April 16, 2010 2:17 PM | Report abuse

I think everyone should just mind their own business and let the people involved deal with this on their own. It is enough for them without everyone's opinions on how to improve the situation. Instead of advice on what should and should not be done to these students, parents should be talking to their own kids to prevent more of these situations. That is the most important lesson out of this situation. It's easier for all of us to say how we would react when we are not involved. So we all just need to mind our own business's and prevent these situations from occurring in the future. sk yourself this, "How can I prevent my child from getting involved in a situation like this?". That is where our concerns are needed the most.

Posted by: mtkprls2 | April 16, 2010 2:56 PM | Report abuse

While I don't think that kids who are sexting should be ruled pedofiles, in the case of the person whose picture is being exploited it can be an awful situation and is a crime. Under the definition it is does fall under the sex offender laws that prohibit distribution of pictures of children that depict a sexual nature. Naked pictures fall right there. Unfortunately bad behavior only seems to stop when the punishment is worse than the crime. Chilren do do stupid things and that is why it does need to be dealt with at a legal level. The new Massachusetts law against bullying is a perfect example. There ar no penalties, behavior does not change.

Posted by: TGPeters | April 16, 2010 3:05 PM | Report abuse

Is anyone else wondering why these kids don't seem to want to protect their own privacy? Aren't these kids the same age as we were when we were so embarrassed by our developing bodies that we tried to avoid taking a shower after gym? What changed?

Posted by: sideswiththekids | April 16, 2010 10:39 PM | Report abuse

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