Decisions to Rethink “Sex Offender” Laws when applied to adolescents
Dear Engaged Bystander: The front page of the Sunday NY Times had a story titled "Rethinking Sex Offender Laws for Youths Showing Off Online." There is so much to say on this issue.
First, it never makes sense to apply laws developed for adults directly onto adolescents and children. The reasons an adult downloads or creates child pornography are dramatically different from the reasons that children or teenagers send pictures of themselves to others. Many others, much more eloquent than I will be able to talk about the reasons that the juvenile justice system was developed in the first place - to address the fact that our interventions with kids MUST be different than our interventions with adults.
Second, the impact of sexting on the victim can be devastating, regardless of whether the person distributing the materials is an adult, teenager or child. When I read that it is just "showing off online" it minimizes this potentially devastating impact.
Third, we clearly need a new response to hold the children and teens responsible for their inappropriate to harmful behaviors. Putting a child or teen on the sex offender registry does not help the victim OR teach the kid who posted the images the lessons they need to learn. The NY Times article talks about the first federal appellate opinion that said a prosecutor had gone too far by applying adult moral standards on a three teenage girls. The prosecutor threatened to bring child pornography charges against the girls whose "scantily dressed pictures" appeared on the cellphones of their classmates.
What would help?
Let's start with prevention. This is an opportunity for friends, families and communities to get engaged. For today, here is one important suggestion. If you have not heard about the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, look at their work. Nancy Willard has developed a range of excellent materials for schools, parents and students. Looking at this website is an important first step and well worth your time.