USA TODAY columnist Steven Petrow offers advice about living in the Digital Age.
True or false: Your teen could be convicted of a felony and be labeled as a sex offender — for life — if he or she has sexted photos of classmates? The answer is “True” if your kid lives in one of the many states, like Colorado, that doesn’t have laws specifically addressing teens who sext.
Why bring up the Rocky Mountain state? Earlier this week, it was revealed that an unspecified number of Cañon City High School students had been suspended for using their smartphones to share explicit photos of their fellow students — apparently all consenting, but all under age 18.
Sure, it’s stupid. Shocking, even — especially for their parents. It calls for some intense discussions about judgement and decision-making, and it certainly demands some form of significant punishment. But ruin a kid’s life? Please.
In a worst-case scenario, a felony conviction could lead to more than a decade in prison, Patrick Roberts, an attorney who defends child pornography and sex crimes cases nationwide, told me. This seems beyond harsh, especially for such a common high school transgression. And common it is: A recent Drexel University survey reported that an eye-popping 54 percent of college students said they had sent sexually explicit photos or messages when they were under the age 18, almost always in the context of flirting or a relationship.
But here’s the unfair deal: It’s generally not a crime for adults to send nude or sexually explicit images of themselves or other consenting adults via smartphone or other devices. (Again, stupid, and potentially mortifying if they go viral, but still not a crime.) But a teen who takes a photo of himself or another minor has unwittingly become a creator of child pornography. If the photo is texted or emailed, that teen has just distributed child pornography. Even more unsettling, the individual who downloads the photo is now in possession of child porn.
What in the world are lawmakers thinking?
“In today’s world, it’s very common for teens to engage in sexually explicit video chats or to send each other nude images,” attorney Roberts said. “Unless a state has carved out an exception for an individual under a certain age, child porn laws apply to this conduct,” he added.
“On top of this, of course, are the devastating, life-altering consequences of having any conviction of this kind on one’s record,” explained Ahmed White, a professor at the University of Colorado Law School. Indeed, it’s ironic that the laws that were meant to protect our young people can be twisted in a way to destroy their lives.
In the Colorado case, the police began their investigation earlier this week after being alerted by school officials; Cañon City’s police chief Jim Cox told NBC News that the investigation was expected to take about a month. According to media reports, the students used one of the many photo vaults — also known as ghost apps —that can hide the images. On a smartphone, these apps, like Private Photo Vault and Calculator %, are disguised to appear to be a media player or a calculator. Parents checking out their kids’ phone see a calculator, but their teens know what code to enter to gain entry into a private photo stash.
— Scare the heck out of your teens: Talk frankly with your kids about sexting and its risks, including the potential for a felony charge and a stay on the sex offender registry. In the Drexel study, nearly two-thirds of the respondents said they were unaware of these risks.
— Start with non-smartphones: I’ve previously recommended that parents use basic phones (non-smart) as the starter phone for their tweens. These phones allow calls and basic texts, but they have no data plans (meaning no Internet connection, no apps). Once tweens have shown they can act responsibility, then upgrade them to a smartphone. Still, make sure you always have their password and login information so that you can see what’s on their phone.
— Make sure you’re familiar with the photo vault apps used to hide images. Look for clues like a second calculator on the phone, or any app with “vault” in its name. And yes, I know there are app developers out there right now scrambling to create the next generation of secret-hiding apps. Stay up to speed on digital trends.
— Bring the laws into the 21st century: Finally, it’s time to change outdated laws on child pornography, which don’t take into account new technologies like smart phones and new teen behaviors like sexting, explained law professor White.
“The key is education,” said attorney Roberts. “The more kids know about this law in this area, the better.” I couldn’t agree more.
Agree or disagree with my advice? Let me know in the comments section.
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