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By Rebecca PiriusAttorney. Sexting has become especially common among teenagers—many of whom are minors—and can easily be used to cyberbully or harass. Some states have enacted laws that specifically address sexting by minors, with consequences that are typically less harsh than when the same behavior is committed by an adult. Other states punish sexting under preexisting laws against child pornography or child enticement, which can result in severe punishments for both adults and minors. California is one of the states that does not as of February have laws tailored specifically to teen sexting. Sexting with minors can be prosecuted under California's general child pornography and exploitation laws.
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Less than half of high-school students are having sex, with fewer partners and more contraception than the generation before them. Teen-pregnancy rates have never been lower. But those indicators no longer offer a complete picture: online, teens are bucking the trend. The steady climb may reflect rising smartphone use and changing social norms. Enjoy more audio and podcasts on iOS or Android. In about half of states it is illegal for unders to sext, on child-pornography grounds.
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Legal punishments for minors are rare, but widely publicised in hard-line sex-education literature. Those reactions are understandable.
But they are based on misconceptions of the problem. More important, researchers now broadly agree, is the context in which children are doing it.
Just as it is offline, consent is vital. Conflation of abusive and non-abusive sexting has led to an oversimplified response. The onus of most interventions has been on the sender. But Jeff Temple, of the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, notes that such thinking ignores the fact that sext-senders are often the victims of harassment.
In some places sexting laws lump together teenagers who take nude photos of themselves, technically creating child pornography, with adult predators. Some states, including New Mexico and Washington, have begun decriminalising sexting between minors—a good first step. The internet has spawned novel abuses with wider-than-ever reach, but they tend to mirror those in the real world.
Yet most sex education is stuck in analogue. New Jersey is rare in covering sexting problems in its curriculum; in December a bill was introduced to incorporate it in Illinois, too. The question that remains is what they should be teaching. To find out, researchers discussed some anti-sexting messages with older teenagers in Massachusetts and Colorado.
It would stress that all sexting carries risk, but certain strands elevate it: taking a photo with your face in it, with a birthmark, in a recognisable place; sending it to a stranger, storing it on a cloud server, using an unsecured app. And it would incorporate sexting into broader conversations about respect in relationships generally. Most experts endorse this approach. Some concerns are age-old, such as that children will as a result have more sex, online or off.
Others are new. But some translation may be required.
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline "Sharing and not caring". The conservative supermajority faces disputes over abortion, guns, religion and more. United States Mar 28th edition. Reuse this content The Trust Project. The Economist today. up. Old loopholes will protect them.
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