Is Criminal Prosecution Appropriate for Explicit Teen Selfies?

teen-cell-phoneAn article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution this week discusses a recent case of teen explicit photos being posted to social media, and the fact that the Georgia Bureau of Investigations is weighing criminal prosecution for the photos when it determines exactly who was involved.

According to the article:

“The postings were removed by authorities, but because the subjects are underage, anyone who posted or distributed the photos could be charged with distributing child pornography, a felony that carries a potential 20-year prison sentence.”

A 20-year prison sentence? Practically speaking, a sentence that severe is probably not in the cards, but the fact that the law offers it as a possibility, even in the case of an impulsive teen, is certainly not right.

We contacted the author in response to her questions at the end of the article about why teens are so willing to send lewd selfies. Our reply:

“These days, not much different from the old days, teens need to be at a minimum accepted by their peers, and ideally viewed as being “popular”. Given the increasing importance of smartphones and social media in teen lives, these are the platforms that teens are using to develop their personal brand and grow their popularity. The fear of missing out (FOMO) is driving them to do things that parents find horrifying and they really wouldn’t do absent the pressure to be part of the cool crowd.”

The author also asked a second question, which was in essence, “What should the repercussions be?” We answered as follows:

“As for your second question regarding punishment, I believe that if a minor sends an explicit selfie to another person, with no intent for it to be distributed anywhere beyond the recipient, that law enforcement should not be involved at all. This is an issue that needs to be brought to the attention of the parents (if it has caused a larger issue) who can deal with it as they see fit.

In the case that the recipient shares or redistributes the photos via social media or sends them to friends, this should be a violation of the law, but as you imply, the punishment should take into account the offender’s age, maturity level and the long term damage that could be done by imposing a prison sentence. A 20-year sentence for a minor should not even be an option.”

The Author, Gracie Bond Staples, published a follow up including some of our thoughts yesterday afternoon, titled “Sexting Furor Might Be Overblown” (subscription required). If you have thoughts on this issue, please feel free to leave a comment below.


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