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  • Writer's pictureMerlyn

Teens and Sexting: Adult Consequences for Teens

A teen boy sits on concrete stairs staring glumly at his phone.

Currently, a constitutional challenge is in progress regarding the January 10th, 2014 conviction of a then sixteen-year-old Victoria, B.C. girl on charges of distribution of child pornography in Victoria, B.C..

Sadly, from my contact with hundreds of school districts throughout British Columbia, these situations are being witnessed by every school administrator in every middle and high school we have visited. The incidences of young people exchanging sexual texts, images, and pictures is unquestionable.  Even if the extreme consequences illustrated in the Victoria case only impact 10-15 percent of youth (lower than most surveys suggest),  the injustice of prosecuting and convicting youth on the most taboo of crimes,  child pornography (which culturally implies dysfunction, deviance or dereliction),  is surely an unjust application of the law. We are creating two victims out of one when we prosecute a youth for the distribution of child pornography. I support the decision of the convicted Victoria girl’s lawyer Christopher Mackie to challenge the constitutional validity of using a law designed to protect children from adult sexual predators and pedophiles to prosecute youth for exchanging sexual images. It’s like cracking a walnut with a sledgehammer.

A few words about teens

By its very nature, adolescent development includes elements of peer negotiation, identity construction, and sexual experimentation (including gender roles and exhibitionism). It’s the learning process required by young people to function as members of our culture. In other words, they have to figure out who they want to hang out with, how they want to act and think of themselves as social and sexual persons, and they have to try out boyfriend/girlfriend relationships. This has been so for thousands of years.

As far as brain development goes, adolescence is also a time when humans don’t have the developmental capacity to assess risk, project into the future, or imagine the scope of possible consequences for actions.

Now, before 2000, all this negotiation, construction, experimentation and brain development took place on pretty small scales. Almost no one recorded anything. I grew up in a small town and while (it felt like) everyone in town knew about the trouble I got into, it would be rare that those people could recall more than a few details about the incidents when I run into them at the local grocery store now. No one kept pictures and until I was an adult, any legal trouble I got into was sealed and is hopefully forgotten.

Since 2000, computer networks have gone from connecting academic institutions and nerd-inclined gamers, to residing in the majority of grade five students’ pockets in most school districts. Ask in your community. At your child’s school.  Do you know how ubiquitous the use of technology is becoming among all levels of society and socio-economic class? In our Professional Development Workshops and Consultation we now offer information to homeless and women’s shelter staff because of the varied impacts technology is having on services for these disenfranchised and marginalized populations.

I do think that the constitutional challenge being launched by Christopher Mackie, is a step in the right direction. The law as applied is unjust. We have obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and Optional Protocol to protect children that we are duty-bound to uphold. And sadly our current educational approaches to changing these behaviours aren’t supported by research. A spattering of information, mentioned in a career planning class or a school assembly on internet safety, is not enough. Research indicates that taking whole-school and whole-community approaches to promoting respect kindness, wisdom and compassion are the comprehensive measures that will change teen behaviours.

Teenn girls sits at an outdoor table looking sadly at her phone

I believe we need to have a more comprehensive approach to the issue of sexting and all of the issues arising from the rapid and dramatic effects of children with supercomputers in their pockets. Perhaps we could take the lead from the work of Donald McPherson, the author of “A Framework for Action: A Four-Pillar Approach to Drug Problems in Vancouver” who offers ideas of four integrated, interdependent initiatives to address the harm caused by drug use. Imagine a four-pillar approach to youth-sexting-youth and all that entails.

  • Prevention – This pillar would include evidence-based education programs comprehensively delivered to children, youth, parents, educators, service providers and the public. Not just once in a while, but a concerted effort to change these behaviours, much like the one that was required to get us all to wear seat belts.

  • Treatment – We need to acknowledge the harm caused to victims by the reckless distribution of sexting images and offer support to them and their families.  The challenges they face as they learn to cope with the existence of permanent digital sexual images and their possible future consequences need to be supported by trained professionals who understand. Additionally, youth charged, convicted or otherwise stigmatized by being the perpetrator of these crimes, and their families, also need support and assistance in contextualizing the incidents.

  • Enforcement – Support for law enforcement organizations to manage the frontline reporting, investigation and prosecution needs support and resources. All levels of the judiciary process, especially those that include predominantly pre-internet generations (judges, senior management and policy developers) must be able to understand the complexity of these situations in order to adjudicate them fairly, as well as be provided with the resources to adequately investigate these increasingly common occurrences.

  • Harm Reduction – Addressing the psychological, social and emotional harm to victims of sexting is going to require creative thinking. I believe that all players have a role to play in minimizing the harm of online interaction; educators, those caring for high-risk groups AND the technology industry and social media providers. It has been said that the measure of a paradigm shift is that you can’t imagine the next version of the current one. I believe that we will eventually find ways to allow children and youth access to online environments that will also provide safety. We will create elements that will minimize the potential harm they experience but to come to these solutions we will need to involve the architects of those environments in the conversation about solutions.

At Safe Online Education Associates, we are happy to play our part and provide internet safety education to schools and communities throughout Canada. We know our services are needed because youth are making poor choices online and the consequences are overwhelmingly harsh. These choices are being made at a time when youth lack the developmental capacity to assess risk, project into the future, or imagine the scope of the consequences possible for some of their adolescent experimentations with modern technology.  We also know that a spattering of education, mentioned in a career planning class or a school assembly on internet safety, is not enough. To quickly increase the required awareness about the dire consequences of posting sexual pictures of yourself as a youth we need to think on a larger scale.

To have your sexual images distributed or to be labelled as a convicted distributor of child pornography and carry that for life, even if the juvenile record is sealed, is a disproportionate burden to punish youth for what is a developmentally normal stage in life. As are the consequences for the victims of the malicious distribution of those same images.

The constitutional challenge by Christopher Mackie may or may not succeed. The law needs to be re-evaluated, no doubt. There await a glut of potential charges and convictions just like the one in Victoria in our province alone.

We need to get strategies and responses moving now. Our current generation of teens is suffering from our inattentiveness now. Let’s do something quickly to make it safer for the next one.


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