This is a catch-up blog post bookmarking real progress in the handling of teen sexting in the United States – and unusually good reporting on it from CNN. Thankfully, none of the reported hundreds of middle school and high school students in Cañon City, Col., who were accused of sexting will face criminal charges. That’s important because Colorado is one of 30 states whose prosecutors have to rely on child pornography laws in sexting cases because they still don’t have laws that address sexting, and child pornography laws can criminalize the very people they were designed to protect: minors. The district attorney who investigated the Cañon City case, Thom LeDoux, underscored how harsh these laws can be for adolescents when he told reporters that it didn’t even matter if any of the students’ image-sharing was consensual. “There is no distinction [between consensual and nonconsensual] according to Colorado state statutes,” he said.
In announcing his decision not to charge any students last month, LeDoux said he “did not find aggravating factors like adults’ involvement, the posting of graphic images to the Internet, coercion, and related unlawful sexual contact.” That appears to be a reference to the sexting typology published five years ago by the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center as guidance for law enforcement in such cases (see my post on the typology for details).
The typology, which would also be great guidance for lawmakers in Colorado and the other 29 states without sexting laws, makes a clear distinction between “aggravated” and “experimental” sexting. New sexting laws in some states provide diversionary programs for minors that include provisions such as counseling, community service, “Internet safety education,” and even the avoidance of “a juvenile record of the misdemeanor offense as long as coercion, blackmailing and other serious offenses aren’t involved,” according to CNN. Sometimes these measures are referred to as “restorative justice,” a much more appropriate response for adolescence. I hope the handling of the case will be a model for prosecutors in other states that have not yet enacted laws protecting minors from felony child pornography charges (see the CNN piece for more on how the 20 states that do have sexting laws handle cases involving minors).
As for one of the tools students used to keep the circulated “sexts” under wraps – “vault apps” with icons that look like calculator or media-player apps on a cellphone screen – the New York Times zoomed in on the genre when the Colorado story hit national news. The Times note that, like just about any form of digital security, vault apps can give users a false sense of security.
- The CCRC’s sexting typology
- About milestone research that taught me how important it is to help teens understand that nonconsensual or coercive sexting is sexual harassment
- “‘Noodz,’ ‘selfies,’ ‘sexts,’ etc., Part 1: A spectrum of motivations”
- A bizarre 2014 case in Virginia illustrating the worst possible handling of teen sexting, where the lead investigator in the case last year committed suicide when he was about to be arrested on child molestation charges, the Washington Post reported last month