Bullying expert recommends teens delete most ‘sexting’ messages

By Larry Magid

Justin W. Patchin, Ph.D, Co-Director, Cyberbullying Research Center and Associate Professor of Criminal Justice  at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire has written a blog post that’s sure to engender some controversy.  Patchin, who is a leading researcher on cyberbullying, is recommending that “teens who receive a nude or semi-nude image of a classmate” should  ”immediately delete it” instead of getting adults involved.

He points out that “if you do receive such an image, odds are that it was sent by a good friend (or a boyfriend or girlfriend). As a result, you probably don’t want to get this person into too much trouble.”

The conventional wisdom to “tell a trusted adult” might actually backfire said Patchin and be “devastating for all involved.”

Patchin has a point.  The mere possession of a sexually explicit image of a minor can be deemed as possession of child pornography which could get the teen who is storing the image in trouble.  But the other issue is the relationship between the teen who sent the picture and the one who received it.

In most cases, teens send “sexts” to people they know — probably friends or at least schoolmates  Given the over reaction by some adults to sexting (including potential prosecution for child pornography), it’s easy to see how an incedent between two teens or a group of teens can easily escalate into — literally — “a federal case.”   Bringing in the authorities can sometimes cause things to get out of hand, especially if one of the adults involved feels as if she or he has a legal responsibility to bring in the police.  What might have started out as an indiscreet act by a teen, could easily escalate into a serious legal problem.

On the other hand, there are situations where  parents, teachers and in some cases even law enforcement should get involved.  Examples include when sexting is used to extort or pressure someone into doing something they wouldn’t otherwise want to to or when a person who receives a sext forwards it to a number of other people.  There have also been some cases where adults are encouraging minors to send them sexually explicit images.

In response to the growing concern about sexting, in 2009, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children crafted a Policy Statement on Sexting to help parents, educators, law enforcement and judges understand when legal intervention is called for and when other avenues (such as counseling)  are more suitable.  Some of the points in that statement include:

  • Was the distribution of the photos done with no malicious regard or desire to harm another, or was it the result of malicious intent by one or more senders?
  • What are the ages of the youth depicted in the images and the age of others involved in the production and/or distribution of the photos, and are they close in age?
  • Do the photos depict only the self-producer, or were there other youth and/or adults depicted in prohibited activity?
  • What was the intent behind the production of the photos, on a severity scale ranging from a benign reason to supporting a separate and malicious criminal purpose?
  • Will prosecution achieve a result which addresses the larger problem of “sexting” adequately?

And as per teens, I can’t agree more with the conclusion of Patchin’s blog post, “If you find out that your friends are continuing to distribute naked pictures of themselves or others, you would be wise to let them know how such behavior can seriously mess up their future.”   A bit of positive peer pressure can sometimes have a lot more impact than adult intervention.

For more see ConnectSafely’s Tips to Prevent Sexting

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