What's The Right Punishment For Teen "Sexting"?

This month's Seventeen tells the story of Brooke, a high school student whose naked cell phone photo got her kicked off the cheerleading squad.

Brooke (her last name doesn't appear in the article) and a female friend took a naked picture of themselves after a shower. The girls say they didn't send the photo to anyone, but soon it ended up making the rounds at school. Brooke's boyfriend was mad, not because someone tried to embarrass her, because "everyone knew what his girlfriend looked like naked." The creepiest part: someone sent the principal an unmarked envelope with the photo in it, and the principal reacted by booting Brooke off the cheerleading team for being "a bad representative of the school and squad."

Basically, Brooke was punished because someone else chose to send a naked picture of her to an authority figure. That person, who presumably wanted to humiliate her, was rewarded. Sure, keeping naked pictures on your cell phone is dumb — and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports that Brooke did this once before — but is it wrong? Even if you're a teen, taking pictures of yourself for your own (or your partner's) enjoyment isn't a moral failing, it's just unwise. Brooke doesn't deserve any more punishment than the humiliation she got at school — and she didn't even deserve that.

Even more disturbingly, some teens have been charged with disseminating child pornography for "sexting" nude pics of themselves to their boyfriends. According to Dalia Lithwick in the new Newsweek, three girls in Pennsylvania were brought up on child porn charges for "sexting" their boyfriends, and girls in Ohio and Michigan were charged with felonies for similar "crimes." Lithwick says one in five teens has taken or posted naked pictures of him or herself. She continues:

A recent New York Times article [link added] quotes the Family Violence Prevention Fund, a nonprofit domestic-violence-awareness group, saying that the sending of nude pictures, even if done voluntarily, constitutes "digital dating violence." But do we truly believe that one in five teens is participating in an act of violence? Experts insist the sexting trend hurts teen girls more than boys, fretting that they feel "pressured" to take and send naked photos. Paradoxically, the girls in the Pennsylvania case were charged with "manufacturing, disseminating or possessing child pornography" while the boys were merely charged with possession. If the girls are the real victims, why are we treating them more harshly than the boys?

Some girls may truly feel pressured to participate in sexting, and in some cases a teen's desire to send nude pictures of herself could be an indicator of bigger problems, like abuse. But if that's the case, sexters need help, not prosecution. And in some cases, all a teen may need is a talking-to about the dangers of digital media and the potential consequences of his/her choices. Whether or not sexting is an indication of deeper problems, we agree with Lithwick: "Child-pornography laws intended to protect children should not be used to prosecute and then label children as sex offenders."

Cheerleaders' Parents Sue In Nude Photos Incident [Seattle Post-Intelligencer]
Seventeen [Official Site]
Teaching Teenagers About Harassment [NY Times]
Teens, Nude Photos And the Law [Newsweek]