Half a dozen teenagers in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, face child pornography charges, three for taking nude or semi-nude photos of themselves and sending them to boys by cell phone, three for receiving them. The arrests follow similar cases involving a 16-year-old Florida girl and her 17-year-old boyfriend, whose child pornography convictions were upheld by a state appeals court in 2007, and a 15-year-old Ohio girl who was arrested last fall. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review article about the Pennsylvania case mentions a 13-year-old boy in Texas who "was arrested on child pornography charges in October after he received a nude photo of a student on his cell phone." So I guess we have a trend.
Over at The Freedom Files, R.S. Davis worries that exhibitionist girls and horny boys across the country could end up on sex offender lists as a result of such adolescent indiscretions. He cites a recent survey in which 20 percent of 13-to-19-year-olds said they had transmitted or posted nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves. Teenagers in cases like these would not necessarily have to register as sex offenders. According to the A.P. report about the Ohio case, "an adult convicted of the child pornography charge would have to register as a sexual offender, but a judge would have flexibility on the matter with a convicted juvenile." And I'm not sure how representative the survey (PDF) mentioned by Davis is. A joint project of CosmoGirl.com and the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, it was conducted by TRU ("a global leader in research on teens and 20-somethings") with respondents who were "selected from among those who have volunteered to participate in TRU's online surveys." According to TRU, they "do not constitute a probability sample."
Still, treating teenagers who have violated no one's rights like criminals who sexually exploit children is undeniably absurd, especially since the ostensible aim is to help these poor, misguided youths:
[Greensburg police Sgt. Rob] Jones said many students don't realize that by sending the photos to others, even classmates, they eventually can end up on the Internet and in the hands of pedophiles.
[Lisa] Rullo [former principal at the defendants' high school, now the school district's director of student services] said district officials regularly review the policy on the use of cell phones and other electronic devices with students.
"We inform the students that it still is child pornography [if they give or possess it] and…this is something they don't want to have at all," she said.
Rullo said her experience shows that many students don't realize the consequences, even if their parents do.
"It's a shock to [parents]," she said. "The students seem desensitized."
Getting arrested and prosecuted, in other words, is like an educational field trip, intended to bring home the dangers of being an electronic exhibitionist. More likely, it will bring home the stupidity that can result from hysteria about online predators.
Radley Balko covered the Florida "child porn" case in 2006. Last year I tried to put the risk of online molestation in perspective. Yesterday Katherine Mangu-Ward noted a new report that confirms the danger has been greatly exaggerated.