On a chilly Tuesday morning in November 2007, 16-year-old Alex Davis was taking a shower before school when his mother, Betty, knocked on the bathroom door. There was someone downstairs, she said, a New York state trooper who had come at 7 a.m. to the family's farm outside Rochester.
"She said, 'I think it's about Laurie,' " Alex recalls. "My stomach kind of dropped, and I thought, 'This is not going to be good.' "
The previous Friday, after coming home from football practice with a few teammates, Alex had exchanged text messages with Laurie, a 14-year-old freshman (whose name has been changed in this story, as has Alex's and his family's). While his friends played Guitar Hero on his PS2, Alex, captain of the football, basketball, and tennis teams, read a message from Laurie saying she wanted to be a cheerleader.
"I said, well, I needed a cute cheerleader this year," recalls Alex, a deep-voiced kid with an open face, dark eyes, and the synaptic quickness of a natural athlete. "And she said, 'Oh, yeah? Well, is this cute?' And then…"
And then Alex made what he now calls "that little two-second decision to mess up my whole life." He opened photos Laurie took of herself with her cell-phone, in her bra and panties, and then just her panties. Alex texted back, asking for more and noting that the reception on his Verizon LG phone was crap. No problem, Laurie replied. She would send the photos to his email address. They soon arrived along with a bonus attachment: a video clip of Laurie performing a striptease. Alex was happy to receive the images and says Laurie seemed happy to send them, "like she was willing and she wanted to show more, I guess." That might have been the end of it, had the files not, as digital files will, leaked onto the Internet. Within a day after Alex saw them, so did Laurie's mother, who phoned Betty to say, "You need to talk to your son."
So Betty and her husband Bill sat Alex on the stump that serves as a stool before the hearth of the home where three generations of Betty's family have lived and asked Alex, a leader of their church youth group and recipient of several good citizen awards, what had happened. Alex told them. He said he was sorry and wanted to apologize. Betty called Laurie's mother, who told her that an apology would be insufficient. Alex texted Laurie to ask what was going on. She answered that her father really wanted "to lay down the law."
And now the law stood at Alex's front door, asking on behalf of the Genesee County Sheriff 's Department how the pictures came to be distributed. Alex explained that he had left the email inbox open on his Dell desktop. His buddy had forwarded the images to his own address. (According to Alex, he hadn't shown the photos to anyone or posted them to his MySpace or Facebook pages, so he assumed this was how they made their way onto the Net. Later he would learn he was one of four boys who had received snapshots from Laurie and from whose computers the images had, like mononucleosis, spread exponentially.)
The trooper printed Alex's statement on a printer he'd brought with him and watched while Alex signed it. Charges, he said, were pending.
Not far from the Davis farm stands the George Eastman House, a Versailles-size mansion in downtown Rochester that includes displays of the Eastman Kodak Company's myriad photographic inventions, including the Brownie camera. Released in 1900, Brownies were designed for youngsters and marketed with the slogan, "So simple, they can easily be operated by any school boy or girl." Pictorial ads of the time show young folks preserving memories of outdoor games and train rides.
Eastman likely never imagined that young people, empowered not only with cameras but mobile wireless network nodes, would instead shoot naked pictures of themselves and send them to friends, who often return the favor. We're not talking about a few exhibitionistic teens, but millions of kids. In a 2008 TRU survey of 1,280 teenagers and young adults (all of whom had volunteered to participate), 20 percent of the teenagers and 33 percent of the young adults said they had transmitted nude or semi-nude photos or videos of themselves, a phenomenon the media have dubbed "peer-to-peer porn" or "sexting."
This practice might be considered relatively harmless, the 21st-century version of "you show me yours, I'll show you mine," if it weren't for federal and state laws that deal harshly with those who traffic in child pornography. The federal statute criminalizes the production, distribution, and possession of images depicting underage subjects engaged in sexually explicit conduct; depending on the charges, it mandates sentences of five to 30 years in prison. Because the technology that allows sexting is new, age-appropriate punishments have yet to be hammered out. Instead, laws designed to thwart middle-aged people who prey on children are being applied to the children themselves.
Sexting cases are piling up in courtrooms across the United States. Three Pennsylvania girls, ages 14 and 15, who took semi-nude pictures of themselves with their phones and sent them to their boyfriends are awaiting trial on charges of distributing child porn. (The boyfriends are charged with possession.) Last October a 15-year-old Ohio girl was taken in handcuffs to a juvenile detention facility after sending nude photos of herself to classmates. "I wasn't really thinking when I did it," she told the court, which threatened felony charges that would require her to register as a sex offender, charges that were dropped when she agreed to have her cell phone and Internet use monitored. Two teenagers in Florida were not as fortunate: In 2007 a state appeals court upheld their convictions for producing child porn. Although the pair didn't pass around the snapshots, which showed them engaged in an "unspecified sex act," the judges found a "reasonable expectation that the material will ultimately be disseminated." Were that to happen, they observed, "future damage may be done to these minors' careers or personal lives." They did not say anything about the potential impact on their lives from a child pornography conviction.
Alex's case isn't even the first to arise in his part of the country. Genesee County, with a population of about 60,000, has seen "a dozen, 15 maybe" in the last two years, according to Assistant District Attorney Will Zickl. "I'm glad they didn't have this technology when I was in high school," he says. "Once you put your image out there, it's out there. God knows where it can go. As computer-savvy and Net-savvy as kids are, they don't think about that."
Or maybe they do, and they just don't care. While it's hard to argue that it's an awesome idea for teenagers to launch pictures of their genitals into cyberspace, the sheer number who do so suggests that they don't share the concern for privacy that held sway over previous generations. When they close their bedroom doors, it is not necessarily to be alone. It might be to hook up with the whole world.
Better Than We Thought
The call that Tom Splain took from Betty and Bill Davis was not the first the attorney had received about a kid caught looking at dirty pictures. "At least in this case, the fricking sheriff didn't send out a press release," says Splain, a big man in a dress shirt and tie. Between answering calls from several clients and a judge, he relates an earlier incident in which an overzealous police chief acted as though he had a big cyber-crime on his hands. The official alerted a Rochester TV station, which splashed a mug shot of the boy—bangs in his eyes, cheeks spackled with acne—all over the 6 p.m. news.
If there's culpability on Alex's part, Splain says, it's that he did what might be expected of a kid his age: He looked at the photos and asked for more. "The thing to bear in mind," Splain adds, "is she sent him these pictures unsolicited. He's [got] hormones galore—hey, yeah, holy cow! It's Christmas morning!"
Alex deleted the files as soon he realized his and Laurie's virtual encounter was about to have very real consequences, consequences Splain knew could be extremely serious. "We're talking about C, D, and E-level felonies," he says. "A C-level is a mandatory minimum three and a half years in state prison and up to 15. In our system, Alex wasn't a juvenile. He was a youthful offender. If you're 16 or older, you're treated as an adult." The Davises could have agitated for a charge against Laurie of disseminating indecent materials to minors in the second degree—a class E felony—but they declined, and they have had no further communications with her family.
(Contacted for this article, Laurie's father would only say on the record, "This country has laws in place to protect children. Those laws need to be enforced, and parents need to pursue those laws to the fullest extent to protect their children.")
Adults who have been drawn into the drama of kids and their cell phones tend to be caught between the desire to punish and the reality that kids can flout conventional standards of decency, morality, or what-have-you and still grow up to be productive members of society. "Schools are really struggling at the policy level, as are the courts, to establish a body of case law and guiding legal principles for what is acceptable," says Samuel McQuade, graduate program coordinator at the Rochester Institute of Technology's Center for Multidisciplinary Studies. His 2008 Survey of Internet and At-Risk Behaviors, which polled about 40,000 upstate New York students, charts the online intersections between kids and sex, which are seemingly infinite. "The last thing we want to do for youth is to clog up our juvenile justice systems with the massive amounts of computer-enabled crime," he says. "It's not possible to do it, nor would you want to do it. The answer is through education."
So far, that line of thinking has led to efforts of dubious value—McGruff the Crime Dog for the digital set. McQuade's own organization, the Cyber Safety and Ethics Initiative, puts its energy into hanging posters promoting "good digital citizenship," embedding ethical messages in school websites, and publishing a pamphlet called It's Worse Than We Thought. Actually, it's probably better. A recent study by Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society suggests that the threats children face online, in particular from sexual predators, are no worse than those they encounter offline. This is in sync with other research, including the 2007 Pew Internet and American Life Project, which shows that when social networking, kids can tell a pervert from a potential friend.
Meanwhile, law enforcement officials are learning that the tough-guy approach can do more harm than good. Splain describes how one local D.A. is handling cases. "He's like, 'I get a call almost every day from the school resource counselor in Genesee [County], saying they've intercepted another phone with these pictures,' " Splain says. "They've taken the tack, we don't want to hurt anybody. We want the school resource officer to intercede and put the fear of God in these kids. If there are further problems, let us know, but word is going out to the parents that the school is handling it internally."
That isn't what happened in Alex's case. Three months after receiving the pictures, Alex was arrested. Splain called Bill Davis and asked him to bring his son to the station. There, the trooper who had taken the initial report at the Davis house joined the father and the attorney as Alex was being led away for fingerprinting. Splain recalls: "The trooper said to me, 'Tom, when we were that age, we snuck a look at our dad's Playboy and passed it around. What do they expect?' "
The Death of Common Sense
It's 4 p.m. on a Friday in January, and the Davis home is a thoroughfare. Every five minutes, someone walks through the front door: a young Chinese woman who lives with the Davises while she spends the year teaching, several employees of the Davises' large farms. Betty pours a cola in the kitchen beneath a plaque on the stove hood that reads, "Be still, and know that I am God," before joining her husband at the dining table.
"The reason we're sitting here is we're hoping we can help somebody else through this," says Bill, his overalls filled by a stout belly. "The girl moved to our school that year; she had been homeschooled up until then. Obviously, she was trying to fit in somehow, and she sent a picture to my son, and he asked for more." He looks to Betty. "In our eyes, that's fairly normal."
Not that they were sanguine about it. "The last thing Alex wants to do is disappoint us, and he knew at that point, he had," Betty says. "And the parents wanted some type of a punishment for the embarrassment."
"If I were in their shoes, I'm not sure I wouldn't have done the same thing," Bill says, adding that, while he and Betty had never met Laurie or her folks, "I'm sure they're a great family."
What might have been settled quickly between the families—with apologies, or confiscation of cell phones, or a smack upside the head and the words, "What's wrong with you?"—instead became a prolonged and anxiety-ridden ordeal. Bill and Betty worked assiduously to contain the damage and did everything Splain, their attorney, told them to do. They agreed to pay if Laurie needed counseling, for instance, a recollection that causes Betty to widen her eyes in incredulity. They took Alex to a sex counselor, a $350 meeting that ended with the counselor telling Betty what she already knew: "There's no sex problem with your son."
Then there were the things they could not control, such as the confiscation by police of the computer belonging to the dean of students at Alex's school. The dean had requested the images in an effort to sort things out—but that made him a suspect, a turn of events that enrages Bill to the point that he appears to levitate in his chair. "They don't make better people than this man," he says. "I was worried he'd lose his damn job! There's the death of common sense, is how I refer to it."
And there was the ongoing specter of prosecution. The D.A. had yet to press charges, but the worst-case scenario was three felonies, including passing child pornography, which would require Alex to register as a sex offender. "How can you go to college?" asks Betty, the pitch of her voice rising as she recalls her fear and umbrage. "How can you do anything with this on your record?"
For several months, it looked as though it might all go away. Then, in February, Splain called to say that Alex would be charged. "The officer said I could bring [Alex] down at a time convenient for both of us," says Bill, his voice thickening with tears. "So I waited for him after basketball practice, and we went there. We walked in the door, and when I tried to go in with [my son], an officer said, 'No, you have to stay here.' "
Betty pats his hand. "Dad was scared," she says.
"Yeah, Dad was scared," he says. "Because Dad has common sense."
Betty says she put her faith in God and knew it was going to be OK. Which, as these things go, it was: Alex was charged with endangering the welfare of a child, a Class A misdemeanor that doesn't require serving time. If he stayed out of trouble for six months, the record would be sealed.
The walls of Alex's room are covered with posters: former Dodgers pitcher Greg Maddux, eight-time NBA All Star Paul Pierce, and a lone shot of Britney Spears. Alex is willing, in the bashful way of a 17-year-old boy talking to a lady he doesn't know, to discuss what happened.
"I didn't pressure her into it or anything," he says. Not that he didn't appreciate the gesture or didn't like the photos. "It was all right," he admits. "It was good." As for the images themselves, they were not shocking or unusual. His friends frequently show him sexy pictures sent by female friends of theirs. Now, though, he has a policy about looking. "I always ask my friends, how old is she?" he says. "My rule is, 18."
Around Alex, the supposition that kids who swap naked photos shred social decency while laying waste to their own futures falls apart. If there's blame to be assigned, he's ready to take it. "It's kind of like that for everything," he says. "Like when I play basketball. If we lose, it feels like I did what I had to do but I still have most of the blame on me. I've learned to deal with it."
And he would have dealt with it, whether it meant going to jail or delaying college (where he plans to study business administration, with the goal of helping run his family's farms) or apologizing to Laurie's parents. The latter doesn't seem to be in the cards. When they see him, it seems to Alex they avoid eye contact, and he hasn't been sure they want to hear anything from him, including that he's sorry. "But I think one of these days I will apologize, just for how everything went down," he says. "I don't want her family to think I'm that type of kid."
Alex pauses, broad-shouldered and loose-limbed, wearing sweats on a Saturday morning after winning the big game. While the photos may have been a big deal to the grown-ups, to him and Laurie they weren't. "I mean, this is my senior year, and I just want to have fun with it," he says. "I see her. She's a star cheerleader. We don't let it faze us."
From his point of view, the problem wasn't the pictures but the aftermath. "This is a 16-year-old boy and an almost 15-year-old girl going through their young adult lives here," Alex says.
"I just wish the families could have handled it better. I mean, I would have been glad to mow their lawn all summer."
After which, maybe, she could have mowed the lawn at his house.
Alex grins. "Exactly."
Nancy Rommelmann (email@example.com) writes for the L.A. Weekly and other publications. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
Start your day with Reason. Get a daily brief of the most important stories and trends every weekday morning when you subscribe to Reason Roundup.