While sitting in Chicago O’Hare Airport the other day, I got a call from Joanna Walters, a New York-based reporter for London’s “The Guardian” newspaper. [@JoannaWalters13] (h/t to Dr. Jeff Temple for the referral). She was looking for background information on U.S. laws regarding sexting by children, as part of a story about the criminal prosecution of two 17-year-old North Carolina teenagers as adults for possession and dissemination of “material harmful to minors,” i.e., photos of themselves. You can read my summary of the case here.
Earlier today, Walter’s article hit the front page of the US edition of The Guardian. It is a good overview of the relationship between state child pornography laws and sexting, and highlights the fact that so far, about twenty states have adopted so-called “Romeo and Juliet” exceptions to their child pornography laws. These exceptions typically provide for diversion and education of first-time teen sexters, rather than immediately threatening them with criminal records and possible sex offender registration.
As I first pointed out in Cybertraps for the Young, the phenomenon of sexting is one of the unintended consequences of making powerful technology available to increasingly young children. One recent study, for instance, found that 44% of elementary students now use smartphones, which may explain why some police departments are reporting incidents of sexting involving children as young as 10.
It is fair to ask why any child below the age of high school needs to carry a smartphone. The potential for mischief of one kind or another is simply too high. Unfortunately, cell phone manufacturers do not make it easy for parents to find and purchase non-smartphones. And it may be moot anyway: One high school principal came up to me during a break at a lecture this week, and told me that when kids and parents upgrade their phones, the kids hold on to the older models and share them with classmates who have lost their phone privileges or don’t use a smartphone. As long as a wi-fi signal is available, the old smartphone can be used for everything except actual phone calls — and with apps like Skype, even voice communication is still possible.
Somewhere, Zeus is laughing.