US states are all over the map where sexting legislation is concerned. While Vermont decriminalized sexting by minors, Indiana is considering a law that makes it a juvenile crime. WTHR TV in Indianapolis reports that, in order to send Indiana children the message, “Do not sext,” state Sen. Jim Merritt (R) is working on a law that would make texting sexually explicit messages and photos a juvenile violation.” “Senator Merritt says other similar sexting bills will likely be filed as well and he would like to eventually see adults included under the law too.” Texas A&M psychology professor Christopher Ferguson sent a great response to the Indianapolis Star in a Letter to the Editor: “I share Merritt’s concerns about responsible teen behavior and the potential risks of sexting. However, criminalizing sexting is the wrong response as it only harms teenagers who engage in this behavior more rather than teaching them responsible behavior.” The real solution, Ferguson writes, is “increased education,” including adding the subject of sexting to sex-education classes in schools. I agree. Or at least health class – not some sort of non-contextual, government-imposed add-on to the curriculum called “Internet safety” aimed at covering the whole gamut of risks online. That’s almost like trying to teach a course on all the risks of life, since the Internet increasingly mirrors it, and have we thought about how well students will respond to a class focused on all the negative consequences of using the media and technologies they find so compelling?!
Let’s teach constructive use of media and technology in context. When children learn history or social studies, they learn about community, citizenship, social justice – a natural place to include *online* community and digital citizenship. When learning
writing and composition, classes discuss plagiarism and academic ethics, the place where online-style, copy-and-paste plagiarism needs to be covered too. Sexting has its right place largely in discussions about adolescent sexual development. If malicious intent is involved, then sexting needs to be discussed in the context of bullying, including cyberbullying, for which many schools have programs. In any case, education is the key. I was encouraged to see that the Associated Press led its coverage of a recent sexting survey with a quote from a 16-year-old saying he probably wouldn’t send a sext message again, knowing that sexting could bring felony charges (see this). [Here’s earlier coverage on what other states have considered.]