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Sexting: What to tell a kid sent nude photos via cellphone

Delete them, plain and simple. That’s what criminology professor Justin Patchin at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire advises teens in his blog. Parents, this is not what you’ll hear from law enforcement people or school personnel because their jobs require them to obtain and report evidence of a crime. But if kids “follow this advice, they risk prosecution for possession of child porn if a district attorney is trying to make a name for him/herself,” Dr. Patchin said in an email.

What you’ll generally hear is that kids should report sexting photos to law enforcement or at least a trusted adult. It’d be great if the trusted adult were you, the parent, because then you could find out what happened and work through with your kids what to do. But if parental overreaction is a possibility, that would really not be good in this situation, and in any case, kids are highly unlikely to tell their parents about naked photos of peers on their phones! So it’s best to tell them up front, right now, to delete sexting photos if they ever get any. Besides, would you really want your child walking around with photos of a naked minor on his or her phone, when they could be considered criminal evidence? Whether or not this would be a felony in your jurisdiction, what if someone got a hold of that phone and found the photos – how would that reflect on its owner? Or if confiscated in class and later searched by school authorities because of a policy against using cellphones in school, could those photos incriminate the phone’s owner as well as the subject of the photos? Here’s Dr. Patchin on…

Why kids won’t report

“There is no way a teen is going to rat out his/her friend,” Patchin says. If he were a kid who received naked photos from a peer, “I’d know that if I tell an adult you sent me this, you could end up getting arrested for child porn. That’s not detention, that’s long-term, life-changing problems. In a perfect world adults would handle these situations reasonably, but most have no clue and will call the cops and then it’s all over for everyone.”

Why they shouldn’t report

It’s a huge risk for teens, he says, because “adults, it seems, are forced to respond to sexting incidents in extreme ways – ways that have long-term, irreversible consequences…. I am a trained criminologist and work with the police every day, but I still think the criminal justice system is the wrong place to be dealing with these cases, at least as of right now when the laws are clearly dangerous for all youth involved. Until we can develop reasonable responses that do not potentially foreclose on the futures of all involved, we are wise to advise that students do not contact adults, unless the incident is appearing to get out of control. And I think teens know when it is out of control.”

Patchin used this analogy in an email to a group of researchers and risk-prevention professionals: “if a teen comes home to find a friend had left him a marijuana cigarette in his room, is he going to turn it over to the police or tell on his friend? Even if he wants nothing to do with it, I’m sure he wouldn’t do either. Again, I think the advice would be for him to flush it down the toilet. The problem with that analogy is that even if deleted from a cellphone, the sexting evidence is almost always still available through the cell company. If drugs are flushed down the toilet they are gone for good.”

Police and educators’ hands tied

“The problem, here, is that cops and district attorneys do not have a good history when it comes to dealing with sexting. But they are not the only ones to blame for this. They are applying and enforcing outdated laws” – laws aimed at adult exploitation of children. The law is black and white, he says, “and there is a whole lot of grey when it comes to dealing with sexting. Until we sort these issues out, it is risky to involve them.” Unfortunately for educators, he adds, if they’re confronted with a sexting incident, it’s also risky for them not to contact the police. “That’s because they too are potentially subject to long-term, irreversible consequences if they mishandle the incident.”

Related links

  • In Texas, “convicted youths face prison time and lifetime registration as a sex offender,” a Corpus Christi TV news station reported this week, but Attorney General Greg Abbott is working with a state senator to come up with a “‘common-sense solution’ that discourages young Texans from sexting, but ensures that a youthful mistake doesn’t have lifelong consequences.”
  • ConnectSafely’s Tips to Prevent Sexting
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