Sexting and consequences

There has been a tremendous amount of attention in the news media and among bloggers (youth ministry blogs included) about ‘sexting’ – the sending and receiving of sexually explicit photos and videos via cell phone, particularly by middle and high school students. First there were reports and explanations of what it was, followed by stories of young people being caught and prosecuted for child pornography, followed by myriad articles and blogs about how common it is, followed by myriad more about how the initial numbers were skewed and exaggerated, and now followed by the ‘who do you believe?’ articles and blogs. This last group raises a particularly important point – what polls do you trust, how was their research conducted, how large was their sample size, from what groups (geographically, racially, socio-economically, etc.) do its respondents come from? Personally, I tend to believe some of the higher numbers, at least for more technology-based areas, such as urban areas and affluent suburbs of cities. I believe this because I grew up near Rockdale Co., Georgia, where you may remember seeing national news articles about the syphilis outbreak among high school students there about a decade ago. But for the purposes of this post, I’m going to leave all of this behind and focus in on something I’ve been paying attention to over the last few days.

The state of Vermont has been in the news for considering legislation that would prevent 13-18 year olds from being prosecuted as sex offenders for sexting. I have very mixed feelings about this. Let me say up front thatVermont senator John Campbell, who was on the Today show this morning, made a fantastic point that I had not considered before. He used the following hypothetical situation – a 14 year old girl ‘sexts’ her boyfriend a picture of herself topless, is caught, and prosecuted for child pornography; she then has to register as a sex offender; she then has difficulty getting into college; she then wants to go into education, but finds it utterly impossible to get a job because she is a registered sex offender – all for a bad decision she made almost a decade before. Put in that light, I can at least see the point of view of those in Vermont who want to pass this piece of legislation. It should also be noted that the people who see this legislation as ‘legalizing sexting in Vermont’ are incorrect. The law would not remove all penalties from 13-18 year olds who sext, it would only prevent prosecuting them for child pornography.

Here’s my problem with it, though. Ours is not a culture that usually learns things the easy way. We, as a nation, typically have to learn our lessons the hard way if they are to stick at all. Think about it. It took ten years of the worst economic downturn in our nation’s history to teach our grandparents and great-grandparents about the dangers of credit, over-lending, over-borrowing, and speculation on the financial market. Sixty years later, we let the regulations that helped to stabilize our economy expire, and here we are once again – after a decade of rampant speculation, borrowing, lending, and spending, we’re facing another severe economic situation. And these mistakes were made by educated adults with years of experience. Can we really expect a 14 year old who’s brain is not fully developed to learn without the guidance of severe penalties?

Maybe I’m just being too hard here, but it hasn’t been too long since I was a teenager. I remember the way I thought when I was 14. If someone said to me, “This action used to carry a severe penalty, but now it carries a much milder penalty,” that would translate into my 14 year old mind as “This used to be wrong, but now it’s okay.” And I think that’s the message that young people will get if Vermont passes this piece of legislation. Yeah, it will stink for the ones who have trouble later in life because of a bad decision they made as a teenager. But will teach them an even more valuable lesson about living with the consequences of their actions. To try to spare them from the consequences of their actions will only lead to an attitude of entitlement later on in life. America’s young people have to learn personal responsibility and accountability.

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