If your kids are caught sexting, YOU could be sentenced

Texas is introducing a new measure that's designed to reduce sexting activity -- and reduce the serious penalties for kids who receive sext messages.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

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!

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