Thursday, June 9, 2011

Sexting: A New Kind of Crime

Susie Vanderlip (Guest Blogger)

Susie Vanderlip is a certified prevention specialist, theatrical motivational speaker, and founder of Legacy of Hope®, a resource for troubled teens and those concerned about them, such as counselors, teachers, and parents. She has performed for, inspired, and engaged in candid conversations with many thousands of teens across America on such subjects as alcoholism, drug addiction, teen pregnancy, bullying, self-mutilation, and suicide. What she has to say about sexting struck me as of great interest to mystery readers and crime fiction writers. It’s a 21st century crime, based on the new technology, that involves a profound paradox: the kids involved are both criminal and victim. EZ

When tweens and teens combine texting with flirting, it can quickly become “sexting.” Sexting is the exchange of naked or semi-naked photos over cell phones. Sending such photos of minors can lead to a criminal charge of child pornography, even when the pictures are sent by a minor.

Some cities and states do not charge youth with felonies, since the intent of child pornography laws is to deter and punish adult pedophiles. But many jurisdictions follow the letter of the law, charging youth who send naked or semi-naked photos of themselves or their girlfriends or boyfriends, and even more significantly, their ex-girlfriends or ex-boyfriends, with felonies, resulting in prison sentences and a lifetime of regret and recrimination. Teens are very vulnerable to breaking such laws and may end up permanently labeled as sex offenders.

The law hasn’t caught up with technology. Likely a teen’s intent is strictly to share a form of connection with his or her partner. When the couple breaks up, enraged partners may send off nude or semi-nude photos to all of their friends, uploading pictures and abusive text to Facebook. Or a proud teen may send a photo of his or her partner to a few friends who send it to a few friends who upload it to the Internet. Suddenly, a private picture becomes very public. Other teens waste no time in commenting and labeling the subject of the photo “whore,” “slut,” etc. The potential for a teen to feel embarrassed, ashamed, and humiliated is enormous. The subsequent self-loathing has led teens to depression, cutting, and even suicide.

Deputy Frank Navarro of the Sheriff’s Department in San Bernardino, CA, an expert in the field, reports that about twenty percent of teens admit they have participated in sending such pictures by cell phone. Twenty-two percent of girls said they’ve sent photos, and fifteen percent of boys say they’ve disseminated photos when the couple broke up. Some middle schools report sexting as their Number One behavioral problem.

Sadly, such photos can stay on the Internet indefinitely. They are impossible to remove from some vast distributions. When teens look for college entrance or even jobs after college graduation, admissions staff and employers may search Facebook for names. These photos are known to destroy opportunities for youth and can become a nightmare for parents and families.

What’s the worst that can happen?
Teen suicide
Teen violence/guns used in retaliation
Felony charges/prison sentences/lifetime labeling as a registered sex offender
Loss of college entry, job loss, castigation in society, inability to live in certain areas as a sex offender

Teens don’t come preloaded with mind-ware that enables them to understand the consequences of their behavior. In fact, quite the opposite: they act impulsively and lack a realistic view of consequences. Teen hormones and natural flirtations can turn tragic when kids start sexting.


Sandra Parshall said...

This is valuable and timely, Susie. Thank you for being with us today.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Susie does amazing performance-based keynotes and assemblies all over the country, and kids tell her a lot they don't usually share with adults. The first time I saw her, in 1995 (on stage playing a teen gangbanger named Julio), I thought she was a boy--her skits and stories are a different kind of fiction that addresses important issues without getting preachy. :)

Julia Buckley said...

Ugh. I wish my teen did come with mind-ware.

Thanks for this important article, which I will now share with my sons, who both have phones and texting capabilities.

lil Gluckstern said...

I really like your post because you actually dare to say what you think. At almost 70 years of age, I feel like an old fuddy duddy, because I think "sexting' has some ramifications that can be very difficult, especially for teens. It speaks to an obsession with sex without intimacy and true relationship. Thinking about the latest scandal in Washington, it seems we are culturally very judgmental, but on a personal level, we really have no idea what's "appropriate." Yes, I'm a therapist. Hard work.