Role of Law Enforcement in Responding to Teen Sexting and Cyberbullying
Society undoubtedly benefits from advances in technology and broader access to consumer electronics. For example, the modern prevalence of smartphones facilitates global communication and the sharing of information at a rate and scope unthinkable only a few years ago. However, with these clear benefits comes an array of potential problems. Beyond the sociological concern of a cultural addition to cell phones, there are significant legal issues that arise involving cell phones and their potential use in criminal conduct involving minors. One such example is the phenomenon of youth sexting.
In recent years there have been increasing incidents of teenagers using cell phone cameras and social media to share sexually explicit images of classmates. A 2012 nationwide study surveyed 1560 internet users, aged 10 to 17, regarding their practice and exposure to sexting, defined as “the transmission via cell phone, the Internet, and other electronic media of sexual images.” Of significance, 1% of participants indicated they had appeared in or created sexually explicit images, containing naked breasts, genitals, or bottoms; with 5.9% of participants indicating they had received such sexually explicit images.
Consider a scenario where a high school student uses a cell phone camera to take a sexually explicit image of themselves with the intent of sharing the image with a friend or potentially a romantic interest. The recipient, maybe without fully considering the serious harm he/she could cause, then shares the image with other friends or over social media. This conduct can inflict immense emotional harm and humiliation on the victim, sometimes with tragic results.
An important legal question arises regarding how should law enforcement respond to these situations.
There have been incidents where teenagers have been charged with the distribution of child pornography for sharing sexually explicit images of other minors. Earlier this year three high school students in Virginia were charged with distribution of child pornography for surreptitiously filming sexual encounters with classmates and sharing it amongst themselves. The charges carried a sentence of up to twenty years in jail and sex offender registration. Ultimately, one 16-year-old was convicted of felony unlawful filming and sentenced to three days in jail; however, the judge indicated the charge potentially could be dropped to misdemeanor provided the defendant performed adequate community service. A survey of law enforcement responses to a sexting case, indicates that such serious charges usually arise only when there are aggravating factors such as adult involvement, surreptitious filming or extreme harassment.
Many jurisdictions have enacted legislation that eschews criminal prosecution in these cases, instead focusing on educational reform programs. In New York, the “Cyber Crimes Youth Rescue Act,” mandates an eight-hour program to educate youths, accused of sharing sexually explicit images of other minors, as to the legal and non-legal consequences and implications of such conduct.
I believe an initial child pornography charge for first-time offending teenagers who share sexually explicit images of classmates is over-the-top. Even though the teenager is unlikely to be convicted of such a serious charge, involving these youths in the criminal justice system seems misplaced. However, the detrimental impacts this conduct is very real and laws should reflect the seriousness of that harm. Although educational reform programs seem like a reasonable policy, concerns can be raised regarding their effectiveness in deterring future acts involving serious invasions of privacy. Ultimately, I believe a middle-ground must be found to provide first-time offenders with an appropriate penalty that can effectively ensure deterrence and education, without exposing youth to potential felony records.