Sexting Laws: Are They Too Tough on Teens?

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Two 14-year olds at the exclusive Lovett School in Buckhead are under investigation in a sexting scandal, as lawmakers in Georgia and across the country debate exactly how to punish children for a crime they may not understand.

One child has left  The Lovett School, another is suspended, according to media reports, and the police department’s Child Exploitation Unit is investigating.

What children may not realize is that sending explicit cell phone pictures of themselves or others under the age of 17 is child pornography.  A child could land on the Sex Offender Registry in many states.  Now lawmakers in Georgia and across the country are looking for changes that protect young people, but exempt immature children.

Rep. Cecily Hill (R-Kingland) wants tougher laws in Georgia. She’s sponsoring House Bill 1334, to make it illegal to transmit obscene photos of minors by cell phone.  This comes in the wake of a case in Atlanta, where a teen broke up with his girlfriend by sending her and her family images of his private parts by cell phone.  Hill says the boy was never charged with a crime because current state law fails to include cell phone transmission.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation supports Rep. Hill, but wants leniency for children who engage in sexting without understanding the consequences. Spokesman John Bankhead tells the Morris News Service, “they could be put on a sex-offenders list for the rest of their life.”

More than 25 percent of teens have sent or received sexually explicit photos, according to a national poll conducted by MTV and the Associated Press, and they often do it for fun without realizing what could happen in the future. Young people in Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana have faced criminal charges.  The Orlando Sentinel tells the story of Phillip Alpert who took revenge on his former girlfriend by calling up naked photos she sent him while they were dating, and emailing them to 70 people, including her grandparents and teachers.  Alpert is now a felon and registered sex offender, who must attend a class with other offenders who have raped and molested children.  The girl was never charged.

Some child advocates look at sexting prosecutions across the country, and believe they are out of control.  Nebraska, Utah and Vermont have reduced penalties for teenagers last year according to the New York Times.  Fourteen more states are considering new laws that would treat minors caught sexting differently from adult pornographers and sexual predators.

In Buckhead, Lovett School officials are not saying much about the sexting investigation, but they are telling parents to talk to their children.

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