The ubiquity of social media has created a whole new category of problems, especially for lawmakers and parents. Much of the consternation is understandable and many of the concerns eminently reasonable. But when technology and social media meet America’s deeply-rooted sexual prudery, we get some very unfortunate (not to mention marginally insane) results.
A 14-year-old girl is facing charges in Minnesota juvenile courts that could lead to her being placed on a sex offender registry—all for taking a nude selfie and sending it to a boy at her school. Prosecutors say that she violated Minnesota’s child pornography statute, which bans distributing sexually explicit pictures of underaged subjects.
A 14-year old girl showed an absence of good judgment. (That’s sort of the definition of a 14-year old…girl or boy.) This sort of behavior clearly calls for parental intervention; what it just as clearly doesn’t call for is placement on a sex-offender registry.
Parents, schools, and law enforcement around the world are wrestling with how to handle teen sexting. In 2014, a teenage boy in the UK was added to an investigative database after sending a nude snap to a classmate. The Supreme Court in Washington state recently upheld the child pornography conviction of a 17-year-old boy who sent a picture of his erect penis to a 22-year-old woman.
We can expect to see more of these cases in the future because surveys suggest that it’s a common activity among underage teenagers. One recent survey found that 12 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds had sent a sexually explicit image to someone else in their lifetimes—including 4 percent who had done so in the last month. That adds up to millions of teenagers who could be classified as child pornographers by the reckoning of Minnesota officials.
I don’t have a solution for this problem, but I’m pretty sure that labeling impulsive and hormonal teenagers sexual predators and giving them criminal records that will follow them through their adult years–affecting their abilities to get jobs, enter universities and rent apartments–isn’t the way to go.
For some reason, Americans have never seen sex as simply a natural part of life. (Hester Prynne isn’t the only woman who has been humiliated by that A.) That historical prudery, ironically, has intensified interest in–and consumption of– pornography and other sexually-explicit materials. Anyone who ever raised teenagers understands the attraction of the forbidden. It’s like drinking–French children who are accustomed to wine with dinner are much less enamored of alcohol than the suburban offspring of uptight parents who lock their liquor cabinets and lecture their children about the evils of drink.
We really need to grow up.