Only those who have been living under a rock for the past decade are likely to find it surprising that a growing proportion of teenagers regularly engage in the act of sexting.
In fact, many professionals argue the proportion of young people who sext – electronically distributing pictures or other visuals showing someone at least 13 years old in any condition of nudity – is much higher than 25 percent that the journal JAMA Pediatrics reported recently from a large-scale national study.
Given the assorted risks and dangers associated with sexting, it’s time for Ohio to climb out from under its rock and officially define the practice for the first time in state statutes and present punishments and strategies for lessening its scope.
Ohio House Bill 355, introduced in May and passed unanimously in the lower chamber of the General Assembly in June, does just that. Once reconvening this fall, the state Senate should act just as expeditiously to approve the legislation.
Under the revised provisions of HB 355, no one under the age of 19 would be allowed to “purposely create, produce, distribute, present, transmit, post, exchange, disseminate, or possess through a telecommunications device sexually explicit digital material” when the person the person depicted is a minor.
Those who engage in the act now can face felony charges including child pornography for their actions.
HB 355, however, would make participating in sexting among minors a first-degree misdemeanor.
But lessening the severity of the crime for minors would result only if those charged take part in and complete a required educational sexting diversion program to have their charges dropped. That trade-off represents a fair balance.
The House bill charges municipal courts, juvenile courts, county courts, courts of common pleas or county prosecutors with the task of establishing the program in their community that must meet rigid standards.
According to language from the bill, the diversion program must include several key aspects, such as:
The legal consequences of and penalties for sharing sexually explicit digital materials, including a review of applicable federal and state laws
The nonlegal consequences of sharing sexually explicit digital materials, including the effect on relationships, the possible loss of educational and employment opportunities, and the possibility of being barred or removed from school programs.
How the unique characteristics of cyberspace can produce long-term and unforeseen consequences for sharing sexually explicit digital materials.
The connection between bullying and cyber-bullying and the sharing of sexually explicit digital materials.
The premise behind this diversion program is to lessen the chances that a minor’s entire life will be ruined as a result of one careless press of the send button perhaps in a moment of jealous rage.
But for those who might argue that the bill goes too soft on youthful sexters, we would point them to its provisions that enable prosecutors to charge repeated violators and those involved in particularly egregious cases with more serious crimes with more stringent penalties.
But, like many social ills, Americans cannot expect the criminal justice system to act alone to lessen the immediate harm and potential long-term pain that sexting too often produces. Schools and parents should play a role as well.
Some school districts in Ohio, for example, have incorporated anti-sexting units to ninth-grade health courses that routinely deal with issues of teen sexuality. Others should join that movement.
Parents, too, must get involved. Sheri Madigan, an assistant professor in the department of psychology at the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute at the University of Calgary and author of the JAMA Pediatrics study, urges mothers and fathers to take a firm stand.
“I would tell parents to be proactive, not reactive, about digital safety. Have open conversations early and often—not just when problems or concerns arise,” she said.
The Ohio Department of Education, too, offers a set of guidelines for parental interaction with teens on sexting. They include monitoring their child’s use of cellphones and other electronics, reminding them to not share a sext with anyone and teaching them about the importance of privacy and self-respect.
The diversion program that would be created under HB 355 would complement those and other prevention strategies well. After all, such specialty court dockets for drug abusers, the mentally ill and veterans have worked well to reduce recidivism and to guide many defendants toward a more responsible path in life. We’re confident the anti-sexting protocols in HB 355 can do likewise.