A felony for a selfie? Teen sexts pose a paradox for police

Nation

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to a term we are hearing more often: teen sexting.

If a teenager uses a smart phone to share nude or semi-nude pictures with friends, is it simply questionable behavior or is it a criminal act?

That's the key question in this report, the first in an ongoing series of collaborations for the broadcast and online between "The Atlantic" magazine and the "PBS NewsHour."

DONALD LOWE, Deputy Sheriff, Louisa County Sheriff's Office: The images themselves, they went from a fully nude picture, to partial nudity, to just what I would call inappropriate, being in underwear.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Last march, Deputy Sheriff Donald Lowe received a phone call from a concerned parent in this small town just a few hours south of Washington, D.C. Sexually explicit photos of local teenaged girls, some only in middle school, had been posted to a public page on the Web site Instagram.

DONALD LOWE: And then the whole thing seemed to just grow every day. After every interview, it seemed like it took on a whole new life.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But now, seven months later, after wading through thousands of sexting texts, hundred of interviews, and bins of confiscated phones, no charges have been filed.

DONALD LOWE: We had talked to probably 100 students, and the majority of them admitted to participating in sexting.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Most of them had simply shared the photos privately with a boyfriend or someone they thought they could trust. None had given consent to sharing them with the world.

DONALD LOWE: It did surprise me when I learned just the sheer numbers of how many people actually participate in that, feel like there's nothing wrong with it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Data is scarce, but one study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and CosmoGirl.com found that one in five young people in their upper teens had sexted at least once. That study was back in 2008, before new sharing technologies like Snapchat and Instagram even existed.

For reporter and parent Hanna Rosin, it hit close to home.

Why did you want to do this story? What attracted you to this?

HANNA ROSIN, Atlantic Monthly: A couple of things.

For one, I have a teenaged daughter at home, and a couple of more sons coming along, so I was just curious about this issue. Second, I have always wondered, there's the paradox about sexting, which is that you hear it's very common, but it's also very illegal. And so I just wondered how those two things fit together in society.

And then this case came along and it seemed like a perfect test case to explore this issue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The young people you were able to talk to, why do they do this? What's motivating them?

HANNA ROSIN: This has been studied, and there's a lot of motivations for why people sext.

The most common one by far is because a boyfriend or girlfriend wanted me to or because I'm in a relationship. And then there are other motivations:  I wanted to interest someone in dating me, or, you know, I just wanted to get attention, or I wanted to be popular.

JUDY WOODRUFF: School superintendent Deborah Pettit grew up here, but that was before technology entered the picture.

DEBORAH PETTIT, Superintendent, Louisa County Public Schools: I think I was surprised by that because, you know, I just thought maybe students knew better than, you know, to share that kind of thing. On the other hand, maybe it didn't surprise — it shouldn't have surprised me, because our students live on their cell phones.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Friday's night football in this close-knit community in Louisa County, Virginia, it's the biggest show in town. Everyone's here, parents, kids, teachers, and law enforcement. But mention the sexting case, and it's clear everyone has a different perspective.

WOMAN: The first thing that went through my mind was, I hope my daughter wasn't involved.

STUDENT: It was terrible. Like, people were sending nude pictures on the Internet. That's — it's wrong.

STUDENT: It's a freedom of expression that, you know, it should stay private. But, you know, I mean, it's not hurting anybody, unless it gets out.

WOMAN: I have no words for it. It's just too much. They're doing too much.

STUDENT: Girls are just letting their bodies hang out. They should keep that to themselves. You know, your body is sacred. It's like a temple, you know?

STUDENT: I got in trouble for it myself when I was, like, younger. But I don't — I know it's bad. And you could get — you should get in bad trouble for it.

MAN: These kids, you can tell them all you want to that the Internet is a dangerous place.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let's talk about the role of law enforcement here. I mean, are they dealing with an innocent prank or adventure on the part of a teenager? Or are they dealing with a crime?

HANNA ROSIN: Well, Virginia, like the vast majority of states in the U.S., covers this under child pornography laws. And that's really the problem. So, you have got this disconnect how it's being used in the culture and how the law is addressing it.

CHUCK LOVE, Investigator, Internet Crimes Against Children: By the letter of the law, when you take the picture, you're actually producing child pornography.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Chuck Love is investigating the case here in Louisa County for the Department of Justice's Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.

CHUCK LOVE: If you put it into a separate folder, now you have reproduced child pornography. So there's another offense. A fourth offense is possessing it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What makes sexting a peculiar crime is that, by law, in many states, the child is both victim and perpetrator. It makes it very difficult to prosecute.

CHUCK LOVE: Do you prosecute the person that took the image? Do you prosecute the person that asked for the image? The person that took the image is now committing four felonies, where the person that asked for it is only committing one, once they get it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It seems that a lot of the people involved, law enforcement, parents, even the young people themselves, were baffled at some aspect of this. And even you, that there was a point when you were trying to clarify.

HANNA ROSIN: Almost in every case, like the one that I described, you see law enforcement and parents going back and forth, from, oh, my gosh, this is a disaster, to, well, everybody does it, and not being able to settle on either of those poles.

CHUCK LOVE: It puts a strain on officer discretion totally. Is it OK to charge somebody with a felony for taking a picture of themselves and causing them a lifetime of sexual offender registry? Basically, you ruin their lives for taking a picture of themselves, something that takes literally seconds.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Still, investigator Love says there are even darker possibilities that can't be ignored.

CHUCK LOVE: What sexting does is, it's adding millions and millions of images to an already overfilled bucket of child pornography. So it's adding to something that we have already tried to control, and it's basically getting out of control.

JUDY WOODRUFF: At least 18 states have passed specific sexting laws, but Virginia's legislature rejected the idea.

HANNA ROSIN: Even states that have passed sexting laws, they generally don't make the distinction between I sent a sext to my boyfriend of a year and I put up someone's pictures on Instagram.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you're saying those laws don't address it.

HANNA ROSIN: Almost all of them make consensual sexting a crime.

JUDY WOODRUFF: School superintendent Pettit is looking to young people themselves.

DEBORAH PETTIT: The parents probably can't possibly monitor every bit of cell phone usage of their child. Neither can we. So I believe it comes down to, a student has to monitor himself or herself. And I hope that — that they will do that.

This report was produced by Sydney Trattner and Francois Bringer, with consulting producer Mark Carter.

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