Thursday, March 26, 2009

Sexting as Child Pornography?

Update: Ars Technica has a good rundown of the history of the case.

The NY Times reports this morning that several students are suing the D.A. after he insisted that the teens attend a "10-hour class dealing with pornography and sexual violence." Classes like these are usually intended for sex offenders, not for teenagers exploring the boundaries of their sexuality. There are several issues here to contend with. First, there's the issue of teenagers participating in risky behavior by sending each other nude photos. Is this the school's business to handle or the D.A.'s? In most of these cases, I imagine that the teens have some expectation that only the person they send the photo to is going to see the photo. However, what seems to be happening is that the phones are being confiscated and then "searched" by teachers or principals, which, to me, is a violation of privacy. In fact, ACLU attorneys representing the families in this case, have suggested that it's a violation of the Fourth Amendment. I believe that parents probably have the right to view the photos on a kid's phone (after all, they're probably paying for it), but the school?

Sending a kid to a pornography and sexual violence class would do more harm than good, I think. Are they going to see certain kinds of images in this class? What exactly would they talk about? It just seems like the wrong solution for the problem. Chris Dawson suggests digital safety classes:
Alternatively, is this more of a public health concern? In general, I’m inclined to think it’s the latter. Too many kids are incredibly cavalier about sexting, along with the sorts of photos and comments they post on social networking sites. Educational programs aimed at safety in the digital age have as much merit as drug and alcohol awareness programs, sex education, and even fire safety.
Okay, maybe. But they've proven that those drug and alcohol programs don't work in the same way that abstinence programs don't work. I'm not sure, exactly, what would work, but it does seem like there needs to be some education here, and not just for the kids. Parents need to know what their kids are doing with their cell phones, online in Facebook or MySpace or elsewhere. They need to understand the same way that their kids do, that these images can last forever, that when they go to apply for a job someday, this nude photo may show up in a search. Too many parents throw up their hands when it comes to technology. So, if schools are going to offer classes, they need to have some for the parents, too. And maybe, it's a matter, too, of helping them understand what should be private. That is, maybe explain to them how to manage an intimate relationship.

The kids in this case were 13, and the photos were taken at a slumber party, probably a sleep-deprived, silliness-inspired prank that's resulted in some serious consequences. But there are other cases where it wasn't a prank, where girlfriends and boyfriends are exchanging photos in part as an expression of affection, testing the boundaries, inspired by raging hormones. We're probably not going to stop these activities entirely, but we should be aware of them and talk to our kids about why they're problematic.
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