Sexting: What Should The Consequences Be?

Sexting

Some Thoughts From A Father, Internet/Social Media Safety Advocate and Law Enforcement Professional:

Sexting is the act of sending sexually explicit text messages, images, or video of yourself, usually from one cell phone, computer or digital device, to another person’s cell phone, computer or digital device.  Although research into how many of our tweens and teens are sexting abound in the literature, as do their findings, most current peer reviewed research is now showing us that just less than a third of this age group have been, or are, involved in some form of sexting.

Many parents ask me why sexting has become more prevalent with our youth, and I think some thoughts from sexting expert Rosalind Wiseman, ring very true as to some of the reasons why:

  • At these young ages, our youth have an inability to foresee consequences to actions specific to sexting. They are more focused on the here and now rather than the future.
  • Immaturity.
  • Craving for attention, which is fed by our celebrity based culture that our youth are immersed in because of social media.
  • Peer pressure, via dares/challenges made by a boyfriend/girlfriend.
  • To play what they perceive to be a prank joke. A picture is taken in a change room or bathroom , which is then sent to others.
  • The prevalence of the technology itself. Most cells phones have the ability to capture pictures and or video.
  • Teens caught up in sexting are focusing on what other people want and think, instead of what they authentically feel.

Another reason why is explained by Dr. Sameer Hinduja and Dr Justin W. Patchin who run the web site www.cyberbullying.us :

Sexting is largely an adolescent development issue. Youth seek to figure out who they are and what they stand for during this tenuous period of life, and the process by which this occurs is greatly dependent upon cues from their social environment.  That is, peer perceptions and cultural norms are a large determinant in their own self-worth.  As such, adolescents often seek to present themselves to their peers in a way that attracts positive attention and increases social status.  This then serves to meet their inherent needs for affection, affirmation, and validation.

A teenage girl might hesitate for a moment when asked to send a semi-nude or nude picture of herself to a boyfriend or boy she’s interested in, but if it may improve that boy’s perception of her and consequently her perception of herself – and if it is deemed socially acceptable – she may do it.  This problem is exacerbated by the incessant cultural messages that describe and promote teen sexuality in arguably unhealthy ways – where “hooking up” may be preferred over “dating”, and where having personal privacy boundaries is viewed as “old-school” and “lame.”

Once a sext has been discovered by a parent, or educator, often the first response is shock and awe, which is usually next followed by contacting the police, given the belief that all sexting is illegal in Canada.

What parents, educators and even law enforcement need to understand, sexting is not necessarily illegal if it takes place between two consenting adults over the age of 18yrs in our country.  In order for sexting to become illegal, or what is known as “child pornography” in Canada, it needs to fit within the definition found in the Criminal Code of Canada:

Child Pornography: Section 163.1 (1) Definition 163.1 (1)
In this section, “child pornography” means
(a) a photographic, film, video or other visual representation, whether or not it was made by electronic or mechanical means,

(i) that shows a person who is or is depicted as being under the age of eighteen years and is engaged in or is depicted as engaged in explicit sexual activity, or

(ii) the dominant characteristic of which is the depiction, for a sexual purpose, of a sexual organ or the anal region of a person under the age of eighteen years; or

(b) any written material or visual representation that advocates or counsels sexual activity with a person under the age of eighteen years that would be an offence under this Act.

Within the Criminal Code of Canada there are three specific sections that apply directly to the possession, viewing and distribution of child pornography (sext of a person under the age of 18yrs) which are:

1) The making of child pornography: Section 163.1(2) Criminal Code of Canada
This would include a youth or adult who takes a sext of a person under 18yrs for the purpose of sending it to someone else:

Every person who makes, prints, publishes or possesses for the purpose of publication any child pornography is guilty of

(a) an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years; or

(b) an offence punishable on summary conviction.

2) Distribution of Child Pornography/Sexting: Section 163.1(3) Criminal Code of Canada
This would include a youth or adult who receives a sext of a person under 18yrs and then sends it to others:

Every person who imports, distributes, sells or possesses for the purpose of distribution or sale any child pornography is guilty of

(a)  an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years; or

(b) an offence punishable on summary conviction.

3) Possession of Child Pornography/Sexting: Section 163.1(4) Criminal Code of Canada
This would include a youth or adult who possess a sext of a person under 18yrs on their mobile phone, laptop or home computer:

Every person who possesses any child pornography is guilty of

(a) an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years or

(b) an offence punishable on summary conviction.

Now the question: Should all youth who create, possess, view or distribute a sext of a person under the age of 18 be criminally held responsible for their actions?

My truthful answer: It depends! Now I know that some parents will be sweating blood over this answer, but let me explain why.

Using research from the “The Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use” in the United States, and based upon my empirical educational interactions with over 70,000 students in the province of British Columbia, over 20 of whom came forward looking for help given personal sexting challenges that went wrong, I believe that there are four specific categories that today’s sexting could fall into.

  1. Developmentally Normative Sexting Activities: This is where pictures are exchanged in a romantic, trusting and caring partnership, where neither partner is pressured for the image or distributes the image beyond each other.
  1. Malicious Sexting Activities: These are pictures that are passed on to cause emotional harm to person depicted. This would include peer pressure or peer trickery with malicious intent to distribute primarily for embarrassment to the person depicted. This would also include an image that is taken under circumstances where privacy is expected like in a school locker room or bathroom.
  1. At Risk Sexting Behavior: Here the teen is engaging in at-risk behaviors where they intentionally disseminate an image of themselves in order to advertise sexual availability with peers, or for the purpose of teen prostitution.
  1. Significantly Harmful Sexting Behavior: These are pictures that are designed to harm the depicted person that is egregious in nature. Here the abusive or controlling peer aggressor will demand an image. Out of revenge will distribute the picture after a breakup. The peer aggressor may also blackmail the victim with threats of distribution if their intended victim does not do something for them. This also includes sexual solicitation of a person under 18 years by an older person.

In my opinion, the sexting category should now dictate the punitive course of action to be considered by parents, educators and even law enforcement.

I do not agree that sexts that fit into category one deserve to be criminalized by the criminal justice system, even though technically they are illegal under the Criminal Code.  Like it or not, the tweens and teens of today are the first generation to be raised in a fully engaged digital world.  It should be no surprise to us as parents, educators and even law enforcement that these digital youth would synergize technology into their normative sexual development. What needs to take place here is education, specific to the emotional, psychological and even physical dangers of sexting, and what may happen if the person you trusted all of a sudden turns on you, and then forwards the pictures that you thought were going to remain private to others.  As the old saying goes, “love” or should I say, “puppy love” is sometimes blind.

Again, even though illegal under the Criminal Code, I do not agree that most sexts that fit into category two deserve to be criminalized by the traditional criminal justice system, but I do believe that police involvement may be reasonable thus starting the path to Restorative Justice initiatives. I have been involved in Restorative Justice circles, and often they can cause the offender to internalize and realize that what they did was wrong to a much greater effect than the criminal justice system could even dream of, thus positively changing behavior and attitude, which I believe is important in this category of sexting. There may still be consequences to actions that are handed down such as community service hours, but the youth does not end up in the traditional youth justice system here in Canada.

I believe that category three sexts are a hybrid, where Restorative Justice (in rare cases such as first time offenders) or the criminal justice system (in most circumstances) should be the avenue to take. Here the tween or teen could find themselves criminally charged, and then filtered through the traditional youth court system.

In category four sexts, the only avenue that should be considered should be the criminal justice stream. The offender(s) should be formally investigated and arrested by police and filtered through the youth court system.

As I mentioned earlier, when sexting has been discovered by a parent, or adult, often they want it dealt with as quickly and as harshly as possible, often wanting to utilize the criminal justice system to their advantage.

I hope the reader can appreciate that the subject of “sexting”, and the reasons for it, is not such a black and white issue specific to reasonable consequences to actions, when it comes to the criminal justice system. The reasons for sexting are multifactorial, thus consequences to actions to it should be as well.  As Abraham Maslow stated, “If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.  The criminal justice system is the hammer, and for category three and four sexts it should definitely be considered and even used.  In category one and two sexts however, I would argue that the criminal justice hammer would not accomplish the main goals that we as parents and educators should be striving to teach our kid which are; “critical thinking”, using “good Judgment” and rendering reasonable and appropriate “consequences to actions” in this technology driven world.

Digital Food For Thought

Darren
The Digital Sheepdog

Image source: Yourottawaregion