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Cell phone smut

Crime | Authorities attempt to deal with the new trend of teenage "sexting"

Issue: "Ready or not, here we go," March 28, 2009

Ben Hunt is 14 years old, likes basketball, and attends Lawrence School in Falmouth, Mass. One day last January he turned on his cell phone to discover someone had sent him a photo of a 13-year-old female schoolmate. It was explicit-the girl had lifted her shirt and revealed herself. But instead of deleting the photo and informing a teacher or parent, Hunt did something foolish: He forwarded it to a friend.

Now Hunt and five other boys from his middle school face charges for possession or dissemination of child pornography. Those charges normally carry felony status, and if the boys are convicted as such, they could have to provide DNA samples to the state and register as sex offenders. Hunt's dad, Brian Hunt, isn't happy about that possibility. "My son hasn't even had a chance to try to get a job at McDonald's, and this would be something that would stay on his record," he told ABCNews.com last month.

The Lawrence School incident isn't isolated. In Allen County, Ind., a male teen was recently charged with obscenity after allegedly sending a photo of his genitals to female classmates, and in Pennsylvania three high-school girls and four boys faced felony charges after the girls sent nude shots of themselves to their male classmates. Most of those students accepted lesser misdemeanor charges.

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Courts in at least five other states have handled similar cases over the past year. All involve indecent pictures of minors that were shared by "sexting," the novel phenomenon of sending personal sexual messages and images to friends-or even acquaintances-through email, text messaging, and web pages. Moral questions aside, many teens don't realize that by taking a photo of themselves, they may be creating what their state considers child porn.

Evidently, the vast majority of such photos go unreported. In a survey released late last year, one in five teens admitted they had taken a nude or semi-nude photo or video of themselves and sent it to another person. One-third said they had received such material, and of those, half passed the material on.

Often the photos or videos were originally meant to be private. Bill Albert, a spokesman for The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, which co-sponsored the survey, believes many teens naively think "Johnny won't share my naked photo with someone else," only to find out later the image has made its rounds or even been posted online.

But Albert says teens are double-minded when it comes to hitting "send": "They describe it both as a fun and flirtatious activity, and also in great numbers describe it as an activity that carries serious negative consequences." It may also be a functional invitation: "Young people are saying . . . that those who exchange this sort of sexy content are expected to hook up in the real world."

That has some states worried about sexting predators. A Colorado bill would have helped protect teens from being solicited by adults via cell phones. (State Rep. Carole Murray said she expected it to be killed because of an appropriations issue.) Vermont Sen. John Campbell told WORLD that lawmakers there were still wrestling with the issue of how to legally distinguish between misbehaving youngsters and serious teen predators. Campbell believes felony charges are too extreme in many cases: "These are kids; they make stupid decisions."

"It's a Catch-22. No one wants to see a 13-year-old go to jail," said Lisa Barstow of the Massachusetts Family Institute. Barstow emphasized parental responsibility but also said sexting "is serious business." Should courts always be involved? "That's a tough one. Is it a 13-year-old being silly or is it pornography?" Ben Hunt has five months to determine the answer to that question in his own case. A Massachusetts juvenile court informed Hunt the charges against him would be dropped in August-but only if he wasn't caught sexting again.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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