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Teenagers flirting with each other is nothing new. With the easy availability of camera cell phones, the rules of flirting have changed dramatically. Instead of asking for a girls or boys phone number, many teenagers have taken to sending nude pictures of themselves via picture text messages, more commonly referred to as ‘sexting.’

A recent study claims 1 in 5 teenagers have sent a nude or semi-nude text picture to someone or posted such a picture online; the number is 1 in 3 for young adults between the ages of 20-26. To many people these are harmless acts, but law enforcement officials have taken a very hard stance against such actions by teenagers.

There have been a number of stories over the past few years of young girls being expelled or removed from school sponsored activities due to revealing pictures. Two Seattle teenagers were recently suspended from cheer leading for having pictures circulated of themselves to the football team; only the girls were suspended. Their parents sued the school claiming it was unfair to only punish the girls and not the boys involved in the dissemination of the pictures.

In a more serious case, 6 Pennsylvania high school students were given child pornography charges for sending nude pictures to each other. Three female students, ages 14-15, sent nude photos to two male students, ages 16 and 17. The female students were charged with manufacturing, disseminating or possessing child pornography while the males were charged with possession only. If the students are found guilty, they would have to register as sex offenders for at least ten years.

Child pornography laws preventing the dissemination of such pictures were not intended to be used against minors who took pictures of themselves and sent them to whom they chose. While the police can use existing laws to prosecute minors for such offenses, it’s not clear such criminal actions are warranted or necessary.

Police are cited as sources in the articles claiming they are perusing ‘sexting‘ as a crime to prevent others teenagers from sending nude photos via text messaging. What is not explained is the danger in teenagers engaging in such behavior. It is assumed everyone knows why this is so dangerous and why it needs to be prevented, but I don’t believe it’s that simple.

A quick search for ‘sexting‘ leads to hundreds of news articles decrying the dangers of sexting and that it’s an epidemic. The same things were said about rock and roll back in the 1950’s and the use of social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace only a few years ago. While it’s true there can be dangers to any of these activities, the dangers can be a bit overstated.

There is always something new teenagers are engaging in which scares their parents. It can be more helpful to explain to teenagers the dangers they can face by these new activities then to punish them for engaging in the activity. Making an activity forbidden can increase the probability teenagers will engage in it, but without them understanding why it can be dangerous.

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