Looking the other way when it comes to teen sexting is essentially endorsing child pornography.
As a parent, would you consider it exploitation if your teenager's significant other viewed a nude photo of your child on his or her cell phone? Now, what if that same image was viewed by a stranger, who happens to be a convicted sex offender living across town? If your child has ever sexted, this is exactly what could happen.
A recently released study by the Internet Watch Foundation revealed 88 percent of sexted images of and by teenagers eventually end up on pornographic websites. These "innocent" teen behaviors are fueling the child pornography industry, which is one of the fastest-growing online businesses. We have even seen this firsthand in York County when a sex offender was caught accessing images that started out as teen sexts.
Technology is stretching our imaginations in so many positive ways, but it is also creating new risks and unintended consequences. My goal in authoring House Bill 815 (now Act 198 of 2012) is to keep kids out of trouble and open their eyes to the permanent results of their actions. My other aim is to protect children from exploitation.
Once an image is released electronically, there is no controlling it. Comparing sexting to a Polaroid is like comparing email to a carrier pigeon. These images can be forwarded numerous times and can be used to harass, intimidate and embarrass. Children have committed suicide over the humiliating consequences of privately sexted photos being made public. There is no way to guarantee these electronically transmitted images will stay in the hands of the intended recipient. These pictures can make their way across the globe in a matter of minutes.
While sexting has become more common over the past few years, the majority of teens do not sext. Those who do may simply be experimenting, but for others, it could be a cry for help. This was the situation with a Mifflin County teen who sexted because she was being molested. Had police ignored her behavior, they may never have been able to stop her abuser.
Whether or not children and their parents realize it, sexting leads to sexual exploitation. A teen who takes a lewd photo of himself or herself has created an image which fits the legal definition of child pornography. Transmitting this image is transmitting child pornography. Child pornography is not determined by who is viewing the image, but it is defined by the age of the person in the image.
Underage sexting is already a crime. The new law actually reduces the current felony penalties teens could face for sexting. The tiered system grades consensual sexting as a summary offense, while cases of sexting with the intent of causing emotional distress will be graded as a second-degree misdemeanor. The law requires judges to consider diversionary educational programs in lieu of prosecution. These records also would be eligible for expungement.
Law enforcement officials were put in the predicament of ignoring sexting or prosecuting these images for what they are, which could have amounted to a felony conviction and registration as a convicted sex offender. Act 198 gives prosecutors more appropriate options and the tiered system allows them to review the circumstances before determining how to proceed.
Every statewide law enforcement organization in the commonwealth supports this legislation. Without this measure, felony prosecution is the only way to adjudicate sexting cases. Additionally, what some have portrayed as an act between high school sweethearts is not always consensual. Even situations that begin between a couple often go awry once the relationship ends and the picture is sent to those never intended to see it.
Act 198 is not the silver bullet to end all teen sexting. This needs to be a partnership among the law, parents and educators. I am hopeful this law will be an effective tool in deterring this damaging trend and in helping reduce the content available for child pornographers.
-- State Rep. Seth Grove, R-Dover, represents the 196th District.