If your kids are caught sexting, YOU could be sentenced

If your kids are caught sexting, YOU could be sentenced

Summary: Texas is introducing a new measure that's designed to reduce sexting activity -- and reduce the serious penalties for kids who receive sext messages.


Image courtesy ZDNet's Social Business blog

Modern life. When I was a kid, my big electronic device was a transistor radio. At 13, I got a television, and sometime way later, I got a CB radio, back when CB was big.

We didn't have mobile phones. I can't remember how old I was when I made my first unapproved phone call, but it was almost undoubtedly sometime after I got my nearly indestructible 13-inch Sony color TV (it survived almost 30 years). We also didn't have Facebook, email, Twitter, or texting.

And we certainly didn't have sexting.

Sexting, for those of you fortunate enough not to know, is the practice of sending naughty pictures via text message or email.

Today, both kids and parents have much more complex lives. Kids, of course, are far more connected than we ever were back in the 1960s and 1970s. On one hand, that's good, because it means a kid can call home when running late.

On the other hand, kids get in trouble, have yet a new level of social stress, have the potential to talk to the wrong people, and are generally exposed to the evils of the world in ways we, back in the day, never were.

One of the evils is sexting. Underage kids are sending naked pictures of themselves to others. One risk, of course, is that those pictures could wind up on the Internet, haunt them in later years, cause them to be the subject of ridicule at school, or cause serious emotional damage. A number of sexting-related suicides have already occurred.

In Texas, and certain other states, criminal charges are a potential consequence, not only for the sender, but for any receiver, unwitting or otherwise. After all, possessing child pornography is a serious crime with serious penalties. Teens who thought they were just playing along with a harmless social trend may find their potential destroyed when they are branded as sex offenders before they even reach the legal age of consent.

Stories of innocent people being caught in the sexting crossfire bring up many other frightening possibilities. Obviously, if an adult coerces an innocent kid into sending inappropriate and illegal pictures, severe penalties are more than justified. But life isn't always that simple. For example, what about the case of an assistant principal who followed the orders of his boss, lost his job, and faced criminal prosecution?

Here are just a few possible questions and scenarios that could come up:

  • Wouldn't it be possible to target someone, bombard that clueless person's phone with sext images, call the police, and frame them for a serious crime?
  • What if a kid receives or sends sext messages, but the phone is in their parent's name?
  • What if these messages are sent to a wrong number, or a cellphone number that used to belong to someone else?
  • Couldn't we just ban kids from having access to camera phones? If you can't drink until you're 21, couldn't we also say you can't own a camera phone until you reach that age?

Involving parents

Into this chaos, Texas is introducing a new measure that's designed to reduce sexting activity -- and reduce the serious penalties for kids who receive sext messages.

To reduce the number of messages sent, Texas State Senator Kirk Watson wants to tap a heretofore unused policing force: parents.

But rather than just asking parents to keep an eye on their kids, Senator Watson has another idea: he wants to punish the parents of kids who sext by forcing them to attend a mandatory education program. Think of it as Drivers' Ed for sexting. If your kid has been caught sexting, you can be sent to -- wait for it -- Sext Ed.

Watson also claims that kids who get sent a sext and get caught with it are being overly punished by the system, since the only punishment now on Texas' books "carries the potential of decades of prison time, plus the requirement that the teen register for the rest of his or her life as a sex offense pervert."

He seeks to remedy this unfortunate situation as a separate component of the new measure, which would change the status of the offense for accused kids.

I'm not sure how I feel about this measure.

I'm not a parent -- a fact I'm more and more grateful for every day -- so I don't know the ins and outs of raising kids.

Theoretically, finding ways to get parents more involved is good. Clearly, parents should be the first line of education in this area. Not all parents are good at parenting, whether they try to be or not. Some kids are just unruly and out of control (despite the best efforts of good parents), and by the time they are teens, the horse has pretty much left the barn.

This makes me worry about the repercussions of the parental punishment on the kids. I worry that less-than-stellar parents will completely lose it and beat the tar out of their teens who have been caught sexting.

On the other hand, I wonder whether this measure goes far enough. What about punishments for texting while driving, for example? Shouldn't the measure be more comprehensive, and address the other dangers and issues involved with these horrid little devices?

A moment for a civics lesson

Before I end this column, let's go "meta" for a moment. I find the dance between tech and governance so fascinating because of issues like this, those involving social change due to emerging technologies. We live in a society with complex challenges. We need to find ways to solve those challenges and the solutions aren't perfect.

Governance is an always-messy balancing act between all the factors, interests, and challenges of any given situation.

The difference between America -- and nations who don't allow the level of messy freedoms we do -- is that they don't get to experience the challenge and glory of governance and all the freedoms that come from having an open, if complex, society.

So, what do you think about Senator Watson's sexting bill? How about the potential cans-of-worms the whole sexting thing opens up? Please TalkBack below. Be polite. I wouldn't want to have to send you to TalkBack School, after all!

Topics: Hardware, Collaboration, Mobility, Telcos


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • I can see the intention..

    however it places undue burden upon the parent that can essentially place things beyond their control. This is a classic case of government overstepping the boundaries into the lives of the private citizen. Yes the parent should be active in the childs life, but you can't monitor them every second so the law would fail the test in the courts.
    • I hate these stupid laws...

      I hate these stupid laws. Take the kid's damn phone away. Are parents incapable of punishing their children anymore?
      • RE: If your kids are caught sexting, YOU could be sentenced

        @olePigeon I totally agree with you on that, how hard is it to call the phone company and have their phones shut off too? because thats what I would do, just in case the did find away to get to it after I took it away. but to answer your question, Yes most parents are incapable of punishing their children, either because they think that nurture works better than nature, or because the government has called spanking child abuse. Im sorry but if my kid was playing with an electrical socket, you can bet I am gonna spank them, because I spanking hurts quite a bit less than being electrocuted and winding up dead... but the government knows best.....
      • RE: If your kids are caught sexting, YOU could be sentenced

        @olePigeon Exactly. But you know we've gotta make a big deal about kids doing what kids do... It's the new american way!
      • RE: If your kids are caught sexting, YOU could be sentenced

        @olePigeon incapable of punishing their children anymore?

        Yes, that is true. They care even less what their kids to also. But that doesn't give any gvt any business in personal lives; it'll be interesting to see the repufcussions of taking away a married teen's rights and arresting them for doing what married people sometimes do.
      • I hate these stupid laws...

        @olePigeon INDEED! Not just take the phone away but make the KID sit in those classes...and make them on a Friday or Saturday so they miss out on things. It would be a greater deterrent to most kids than their parent being punished anyway. Next the parent needs to also cut the internet cord-stops them just using Skype etc. THEN-and make sure the kid knows the consequence beforehand-install internet snoop software of trust is violated. BEEN THERE, DONE THAT. The courts could throw in the threat of not being able to get a learners permit at the usual early time...wooo now you've got THEIR attention. My kid, now 22, knows trust is earned. She still tells the story of my walking into middle school and the principal asking if I really cut the cord off her tv- she was told she wasn't allowed to watch it but did-after taking a laser pen toy to school. (which the school could have suspended her for and she knew better). My kid graduated with honors-but is just now appreciating some of the rules and consequences...lol. A huge part of the problem today is they have no consequences. Punish parents? GET REAL.
        Repeated offence should mean time at a psychiatric facility...because obviously there is a problem.
    • I agree here.

      @JT82 : I am quite surprised that Texas, king state of the "Stay out of my life you dang-nabbit Government or I'll shoot you" mentality, would even contemplate such a dictatorial invasion by the government.

      I agree that having these pictures on one's phone, especially if the receiver is themselves a minor, should not be a sex offense crime. If they don't punish underage people from having sex with one another, they shouldn't penalize them for having pictures of one another.

      When one is significantly older than the other, the rules change of course because then abusive coercion may be at play.

      Limiting kids from having camera phones I think would be pointless. Cameras on their phones have allowed kids to take fun pictures of them and their friends, as well as being able to catch pictures of their everyday life-- that doesn't involve nudity in any way. You never know, that next violent criminal/kidnapper may be inadvertently captured by a pic from a kid's camera.

      I think that this is something that should be taught in school. Technology is now such a cohesive part of our society that we should be teaching kids the ramifications of and how to avoid sexting and those types of damaging coercions, along with sex ed classes. At the very least, information should be distributed to parents so that they can educate their kids. If they choose not to, then they are failures as parents (to develop enough of a spine to be willing to talk to their kids about it) and should only blame themselves if this sort of things happens. If you don't have the time to invest in your kids, then you shouldn't have had them in the first place.

      Branding a juvenile with a sexual offense because of this is just ludicrous and is a overreaction by lawmakers who are so far out of touch with reality that they can barely even comprehend what a teenager's life is like these days.
      • RE: If your kids are caught sexting, YOU could be sentenced

        @Zorched Please, don't get me started on SCHOOLS in Texas. I've dealt with it and it is a complete farce. Schools have completely abdicated their authority and now call the police for anything remotely resembling a disturbance. It's the litigation way, doncha know.
      • This law tries to limit the power of government to interfere.

        @Zorched Today: Step 1) Let's say a kid "moons" a friend via camera phone 2) District Attorney eventually gets hold of it, and decides to "make an example" or "test the law" 3) Government has essentially unlimited resources, guaranteeing a lengthy and expensive court battle...for the kid's family 4) Eventually, the kid will likely lose or settle (still out their attorney's fees) 5) Kid is convicted of a sex crime and has to register for the rest of his life.

        With this law: 1) Kid "moons" other kid 2) Kid gets a ticket for a minor infraction (class C misdemeanor is the absolute LOWEST level of crime that can be charged in Texas) 3) Kid goes to the sexting equivalent of Defensive Driving 4) Kid has no permanent record and goes on to live his/her life as a hopefully normal human being.

        What's wrong with this exactly?
      • RE: If your kids are caught sexting, YOU could be sentenced

        @Zorched PRECISELY correct my friend! I have written a comprehensive refutation of this law and more importantly the mentality behind it and the age of consent issue, on page two. I hope you read it. Thank you.
    • RE: If your kids are caught sexting, YOU could be sentenced

      @JT82 I agree entirely. Please see my much more comprehensive comments on page two.
    • RE: If your kids are caught sexting, YOU could be sentenced

      Here's the problem: No matter what you do, TEENAGERS ARE GOING TO GET INVOLVED WITH SEX. It's what we as a species are built to do - we go through puberty, our hormones kick in, and that's that.

      The government has no place in this debate; sexting is simply another vector for human behavior that has been around as long as humans have.

      This is between parents and their kids, unless one of the parties is an adult that should darn well know better. Levying punishment because our culture is embarrassed of sex is absurd - it's one thing for an adult to take advantage of an adolescent, and quite another for two adolescents to be involved with each other.

      Don't get me wrong, I loathe the practice. It's idiotic to send compromising pictures of yourself to anyone, and an abomination to coerce someone else into doing so, especially so if your intent is to cause shame.

      But destroying lives over the stupid shit all teenagers do is ridiculous.
      • RE: If your kids are caught sexting, YOU could be sentenced

        @tarscrap Hear, hear.
        The first, and only sane comment so far.
    • RE: If your kids are caught sexting, YOU could be sentenced

      @JT82 ... and it would have no impact at all on the oral sex that goes on all over the place around a school. Someday when school lets out, wait a few minutes and then take a tour of the nooks and crannies all over th school grounds. Go inside and stand still near a stairway; list for the sounds. Nothing? Go to the next one.
      The gvt of Texas has a plan of privacy invastion that can in following years monitor your and your kids bedrooms. Or basement. Or unused granny apartment. Getting mom and dad in trouble doesn't worry them; getting THEM in troublde does, but the gvt couldn't do it even if they were allowed to.
  • So if you want to send an enemy to jail

    just anonymously (or better yet, use someone else's phone) send him a picture of a naked child, and make sure someone else finds out about it. Instant jail.

    Of course such a law will be declared unconstitutional before long, but not before it ruins innocent people's lives. And also consider the ramifications of such a law. If a child starts sending unwanted sex pics to people they know, those people cannot intervene because if they do, THEY go to jail. So the problem gets worse.
    Michael Kelly
  • Ridiculous

    And why does the State care??? let the kids do what they want... underneath our clothes we all look the same... these kids grew up with the internet, trust me, they've probably have seen it all.
    • The problem is, it's not just the kids who might get to "see it all"...

      and those pictures can and have already made their way to other "viewers" who were not the intended "audience".
  • Sexting

    I think its a great thing. We need to teach our youth what's appropriate and what's not. It will teach them to have respect for their communications and the messages they send as well as keep them out of trouble. We need mobile operators to put solutions in place as well. For instance, Image Vision Labs has technology out there to prevent the transmission of illicit images and sexting. Operators need to be responsible for having solutions as an option for parents. Then parents monitor while children learn the appropriate ways to communicate. If every entity does their part, we can truly begin to battle the issue.
    • RE: If your kids are caught sexting, YOU could be sentenced

      What are you 60? Kids will do what you tell them not to do lol
      • RE: If your kids are caught sexting, YOU could be sentenced

        @Hasam1991 Very true! I think if everybody tried it would help drastically!