3.23.2009

"Sexting" and the Law

In the wake of teen suicides stemming from "sexting" by teenage high schoolers who sent out nude photos of themselves via cellphones, bereaved parents are calling for laws to end the madness.

I'm making a call here to end, prospectively, the madness of trying to solve the sexting phenomenon through the law.

The stories are admittedly terrible - the mistakes of teenagers exacerbated by technology, circling like a wildfire in the narrow canyon of a high school, ending in hangings.  Still, no matter how devastating the loss is for the families of those caught up in the fray, the law is not the simple answer.  We've already seen the absurdities that ensue from holding minors as sex offenders for sending nude photos by cellphone.

Addressing the problem of sexting requires societal, cultural, and family responses - and a greater emphasis on self-restraint and self-respect for teens generally.  The law can't necessarily stop the unwise decision to send a nude photo of one's self to someone who can't be trusted.  Nor can it stop the callous rumor mill that tends to grind away out of control when salacious incidents get out of hand in a high school setting.

The law could pinpoint the technological bottleneck step of disseminating a photo without the original sender's permission.  But again, the potential for chilling or overbroad laws - hammers in place of scalpels - is high when emotion is driving the push for legislation.  Moreover, even with a law in place, its actual influence on teen conduct is questionable.

What's the bottom line?  Parents - and teenagers themselves - need to ensure that teens are facing the world with sufficient self-restraint.  Parents need to make balancing decisions about what technologies their children use.  And if sexting nonetheless occurs, parents need to ensure that their children are strong enough, thick-skinned enough to bear the inevitable petty reverberations.  Teens need to realize that suicide is not a proportionate response to any embarrassment related to naked photos.