Teen ‘sexting’: Youthful prank or sex crime?

A 15-year-old Pennsylvania girl is facing child pornography charges for sending nude photos of herself to other kids. A 19-year-old Florida man got thrown out of college and has to register as a sex offender for 25 years because he sent nude pictures of his girlfriend to other teens.

The growing phenomenon of kids using their cell phones and computers to share racy photos and videos is known as “sexting.” It is a problem that society is having trouble dealing with, and the punishments do not fit the perceived crimes, attorney Larry Walters told TODAY’s Matt Lauer Tuesday in New York.

“Kids will be kids, but that doesn’t make them criminals. This problem needs to be solved as a social problem, not a criminal problem,” Walters said.

Tragic consequences
Walters was joined by Internet safety consultant Parry Aftab, who campaigns against the dangers presented to juveniles by modern communications technology. While Walters talked about how inappropriate it is to treat juveniles the same as adult pedophiles, Aftab talked about the very real dangers that sexting can lead to.

Aftab didn’t argue with Walters’ assertion that the law has not caught up with technology. But, she said, “We don’t really have a choice. There’s nothing else out there, and we are relying on prosecutorial discretion, meaning the prosecutors won’t bring these cases. But when kids are out of hand, prosecutors are saying enough is enough.”

Kids may not think there is any harm in sending revealing pictures to boyfriends and girlfriends, but Aftab brought up the case of Jesse Logan, an 18-year-old high school student from Cincinnati who killed herself after her ex-boyfriend sent nude pictures of her to other girls in her school. Jesse’s mother, Cynthia Logan, and Aftab visited TODAY last week to talk about the tragic case.

They told of how some of the girls who received Jesse Logan’s pictures harassed and bullied her for months. Cynthia Logan alleges that school officials did not take steps to stop the harassment. Jesse told her story to a local television station, and when that didn’t stop the harassment, she hanged herself in her bedroom last July.

Aftab has enlisted Cynthia Logan’s help in spreading the word about the dangers of technology and sexting. “I’ve got my Teen Angels and my volunteers working on my campaign now with Cynthia and Jesse’s friends to try to use her story as the story that will change behavior,” Aftab told Lauer. “We think that Jesse’s voice and what happened here can make a difference. They need to understand the laws as written now, when applied to them, might mean they’re registered sex offenders.”

Children or adults?Walters did not condone what happened to Logan. Instead, he focused on the application of child pornography laws to children who are guilty mainly of bad judgment.

“The punishment doesn’t fit the crime,” Walters told Lauer, addressing the growing number of teens and young adults being charged as sex offenders for sexting pictures. “These child porn laws were designed to punish a very different behavior. A kid sending a racy picture is a very different behavior than a pedophile forcing a toddler to perform a sex act on camera. That’s what these child porn laws were designed to address.”

Walters pointed out that if an adult shares revealing photos of nude adults with other adults, it’s not a crime. But if kids share similar photos of other kids, it may be.

A recent survey showed that 20 percent of kids under the age of 17 have admitted that they received revealing photos of other kids. That, Walters said, presents a problem that the laws aren’t equipped to handle.

“We are holding kids to a higher standard than adults who do the same kind of thing,” Walters said.

Lauer said that the fact remains that the teens are not adults.

“These teens don’t see themselves as children. They see themselves as teens. They don’t see what they’re doing as child pornography,” Walters replied. “Teens believe it is normal. It is normal for them. To use child porn laws to punish teens for behavior the law was never designed to address is overkill, number one, and it dilutes the effectiveness of child pornography laws for everyone else.”