About a year ago, a friend came over to our house with an iPad, and our daughter found a new obsession. She oohed and aahed at the African safari photos; she furrowed her brow in concentration while playing the ABC game; and she cackled at the little purple kitty that repeated what she said, but in high speed and at a helium-esque pitch. The next morning, our daughter (who is, mind you, three years old) woke up crying for the iPad. She was hooked.
Fast forward to November 2011. We still don’t own an iPad, but that doesn’t alter the reality that most of our kids will own notebooks, smartphones, or tablets at some point in their childhoods. And it’s our job as parents to make sure they engage in safe, legal use of them.
One of the biggest areas of concern for youth and technology is child pornography. Many kids are sexting – texting, messaging, and emailing photos of themselves and others that Virginia law considers pornographic. And these kids are finding themselves in big legal trouble.
Virginia provides separate criminal sanctions for the production, possession, and distribution of child pornography. Child pornography can be generally categorized as any simulated or real sexual acts or the portrayal of certain body parts of minors. A minor can be prosecuted, serve prison time, and, in certain instances, be required to register as a sex offender. To be clear, that means that a 17-year-old girl can be charged and found guilty of possessing pornographic material for having an illicit photo of her 16-year-old boyfriend on her cell that he sent to her via text message.
Although the laws were initially established to catch traditional pedophiles, they are broad enough to apply to teens who are consensually taking and sending pornographic images of minors. Northern Virginia attorney Luke Nichols of Nichols & Green educates youth and parents in sexting laws. He states that many teens who are criminally charged are caught in one of the following situations:
An otherwise innocent youth is hanging out with people who aren’t so innocent. Imagine a 15-year-old whose buddy forwards a photo of another classmate. Once the innocent teen is knowingly in possession of the pornographic image, he is guilty of a class six felony.
An irate parent files a civil complaint against a youth after discovering inappropriate pictures of her daughter in that youth’s possession. A criminal prosecution could easily follow the civil complaint.
A youth has an interaction with police that is otherwise minor (let’s say a group of teens skateboarding in an unauthorized area). Cell phones are searched, and the teens whose phones contain pornographic images are charged with felonies.
Bottom line: this is serious business, and we parents need to educate our teens on the real dangers of sexting. Whether or not you consider the behavior criminal doesn’t matter when it comes to the courtroom. Your teen could face the very real threat of conviction and prison time. So talk to your children, educate them, and arm them with the knowledge, skills, and principles to prevent any involvement in sexting.