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The teen sexting ‘trainwreck’ & state laws

US Rep. Anthony Weiner’s very public personal disaster story has made sexting top-of-mind again, but there’s good news in all this: More and more states are considering “relaxing penalties for teen sexting,” as the headline put it, because lawmakers throughout the US are now recognizing that “the problem of teen sexting didn’t exist when they enacted harsh punishments for child porn and are considering changes that would ensure minors don’t face jail time for youthful mistakes.” The article looks at developments in California, Rhode Island, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New York. has an update on proposed legislation in New Jersey. And USATODAY reported on a Texas bill concerning reduced penalties for minors that recently went to Gov. Rick Perry for signing.

Meanwhile, this week social media researcher danah boyd (whose legal name is lower-cased) is giving an insightful talk to the tech industry on teen sexting. In it, urges the industry to apply its innovation skills to the challenges of UGC (user-generated content) and she explains how teen sexting is sometimes a stupid mistake, sometimes intentionally cruel or even criminal, and often “a very rational act with very irrational consequences.”

Sexting: The human part

boyd talks about the various motivations – showing off, fame-seeking, boy/girlfriend acquisition, a form of safe sex, slut-shaming (public humiliation), revenge (she doesn’t mention developmentally normative gaming like a digitally “enhanced” Truth or Dare game) – and two teen-sexting formulas:

  • Formula #1: Boy and girl are dating, images are shared. Boy and girl breakup. Spurned lover shames the other by spreading images.
  • Formula #2: Girl really likes boy, sends him sexy images. He responds by sharing them, shaming her. Or, interestingly, vice versa, with girl shaming boy who likes her. Cuz, much to most people’s surprise, teen boys are just as likely to share naked photos as teen girls.”

Tech & politics’ roles

The dark side (the toxic, even criminal, potential) of digital media and the convergence of its feature – multimedia, instantly massively sharable, user-produced, recordable, archivable, and searchable – created what danah calls “a ticking time bomb. All of a sudden, prosecutors determined to ‘teach those kids a lesson’ start prosecuting teenagers for creating, possessing, and distributing child pornography of themselves. The age-old practice of “slut shaming” takes on an entirely new meaning when photographs are used. Schools panic and just suspend everyone. Kids start committing suicide over the emotional costs of being shamed. Web sites panic because they can’t tell the difference between a 17-year-old [minor] and an 18-year-old, let alone determine the intention behind the posting of the images. Attorneys general cherry pick which companies they want to pick on. And the news media takes the most egregious cases out there and hypes them as the latest teen craze. In short, sexting has become a disaster for pretty much everyone involved.”

From teens’ perspective

Then think about how all this must look to teens: They are “absolutely flabbergasted to learn that it’s legal for them to have sex but not to take naked pictures of themselves,” says boyd, who, as an ethnographer, regularly talks to teens all over the US. “Because, from their perspective, the consequences of having sex are much more significant than the consequences they imagine of posting a naked image. Little do they know that they could be charged with child pornography statutes and be forced to register as a sex offender.” Don’t miss teen Stories #1, #2, and #3 in the talk for the insights they provide.

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