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An Interdisciplinary Response to Sexting

Hedda Litwin, Cyberspace Law Counsel

Hedda Litwin, NAAG Cybercrime Counsel

One in every six teens who has a cell phone has received a sexually suggestive image or video of someone they know, and 4 percent have sent such an image to themselves or someone else via text messaging. These significant figures resulted from a survey and subsequent focus groups of teens aged 12-17 conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project last year. Coverage of sexting by the media, in addition to concern for the youths involved in sexting incidents, led members of the law enforcement, legal and education communities, as well as other public organizations, to form the Youth Online Safety Working Group (YOSWG) in May 2009. The National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG), the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) and the National Parent Teacher Association (PTA) were among the organizations participating in the working group.

Sexting is generally defined as the sending of sexually explicit texts or nude or partially nude images of minors by minors. In some well-publicized instances, these images have been considered to be child pornography. The working group focused on alternatives to prosecution in sexting incidents, determining that a multidisciplinary approach was necessary to address sexting. The working group also met with nine students from a high school in Arlington, Va., in a roundtable format to learn about their views on sexting and its prevalence in their school. These teens felt that education about sexting and its consequences was essential, and that this education should begin during the middle school years to be effective.

Working together throughout the year, the group developed separate recommendations for both educational and legal professionals in addressing sexting. Legal professionals were encouraged to develop a response plan which included: 1) educating colleagues, such as juvenile probation officers and school attorneys, on sexting: 2) evaluating individual sexting incidents to determine if arrests are warranted; 3) using discretion in determining legal actions such as the filing of charges; 4) reviewing existing laws as they pertain to sexting to see if changes should be made; 5) considering alternative responses, such as diversionary programs or a civil child protection petition; and 6) forming a relationship with their Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force to increase expertise.

The working group also developed recommendations for legal professionals in the areas of prevention education and team approaches. The complete report can be found here.

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