Anti-child-porn laws in the US are being turned against teens who picture themselves in the nude and distribute the photographs to their friends.
Last month prosecutors in Greensburg, Pennsylvania charged six teens ranging in age from 14 to 17 with creating, distributing and possessing child pornography, after three girls were found to have taken photos of themselves in the nude or partially nude and e-mailed them to friends, including three boys who are among the defendants.
"It was a self portrait taken of a juvenile female taking pictures of her body, nude," said Capt. George Seranko of the Greensburg Police Department.
Police said school officials learned of the photos in October. That's when a student was seen using a cell phone during school hours, which violates school rules. The phone was seized, and the photos were found on it, police said. When police investigated, other phones with more pictures were seized.
In a previous instance a 15-year-old Ohio girl was arrested earlier this month for sending nude photos of herself to other minors and was facing felony criminal charges for illegally using a minor in nudity-oriented material and for possession of criminal tools. If convicted, the teen could have been forced to register as a sexual offender annually for ten years.
But subsequently the girl, a student at Licking Valley High School in Newark, Ohio, reached an undisclosed agreement with prosecutors to resolve the case. Details were not released, but the teen won't have to register as a sex offender.
Livingston County Sheriff's Lt. Todd Luzod told the Ann Arbor News, "The girl involved committed a crime by sending it to her friends. And it's really important to educate the students to realize once you put something like that out over the air like that, you have no idea how many cell phones or computers it could go to.''
Police confiscated about a dozen phones, which will not be returned to their owners. Authorities haven't decided yet whether to charge the phone owners with possession of child porn, but those who also distributed the image to others could face separate charges for distributing illegal material. If charged and convicted, they might be required to register as a sex offender, which will stay on their record for years.
"The bottom line is that kids need to realize there can be unintended consequences from this type of behavior,'' Livingston County Prosecutor David Morse told the Ann Arbor News. "And for parents, it's one more reminder to keep a close eye on what their kids are doing both with computers and cell phones.''
Similar cases have been reported in Alabama, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and Utah.
And here's another case in Florida sent by a reader in which two teens -- a 16-year-old girl and her 17-year-old boyfriend -- photographed themselves while having sex and were charged with producing, directing or promoting child porn. Neither of the two teens had shared the images with anyone else.
The issue of teenagers distributing self-made pornography isn't new, but its prevalence and consequences have been exacerbated by advances in technology. Thirty years ago a teen who wanted to take nude self-portraits had to develop the film at a lab, and distribution was limited by the number of copies made from the negative. Now a camera-phone and internet connection are enough to send the image around the world in an instant, whether or not the sender intended it to reach that far.
Critics say the criminal charges against minors, under laws that were meant to protect them from adults, is the wrong way to address the issue of teens exploring their sexuality. Law enforcement's reaction effectively turns victims into perpetrators, they say.
"The problem is that the child porn laws were really designed for a situation where an adult abuses a minor by forcing that minor ... psychologically as well as physically ... into taking these pictures," said Mark Rasch, a former federal cybercrime prosecutor. "But when the person takes the picture herself or consents to the picture being taken, it turns the whole statute on its head."
Parry Aftab, founder and director of WiredSafety, which educates kids about internet safety, says the prosecutions are desperate acts by frustrated law enforcement officials, and they don't achieve the desired effect.
He supports legislation to exempt any minor from prosecution for creating an image of himself or herself and distributing it to friends, Kim Zitter writes on the Wired.
The recipient, too, should be exempt, though Rasch sees no problem with charging a boyfriend or friend if they distribute the image further without the girl's consent. Even then, though, he thinks there's room for debate about the consequences.
Rasch said teens don't realize that one unintentional consequence of self-made child porn is that it can sometimes provide authorities with evidence of other crimes. He cites the case of Genarlow Wilson in Georgia who was convicted of having consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old girl when he was 17 based on a videotape of his encounter with the girl at a party. Wilson was sentenced to 10 years in prison and required to register as a sex offender, though he was released after serving two years following an appeal to the state supreme court.
There are no known cases involving federal charges against a minor for child porn: the recent cases were brought under state laws by local prosecutors, usually in juvenile court. Since juvenile cases are not part of the public record, Rasch says it's not known what kinds of sentences have resulted from such cases. But he said generally juveniles who commit crimes get convicted of delinquency, not the actual crime they commit.
In the recent Pennsylvania case, Capt. Seranko said the teens are likely to get community service if convicted.
"Their records won't be scarred for life," he said.
Rasch points out that people who take or share nude self-portraits when they're minors could be prosecuted as adults and face harsher penalties if they're still in possession of the images when they reach the age of 18.
With regard to the claim that prosecution of minors will deter other teens from engaging in the same activity, Aftab says this isn't the case, because teens don't identify with the concept of criminal charges. She points to the famous case of several teenage girls in Florida last year who were arrested for beating up another girl.
"They were laughing on the way to jail and worrying about if their hair will look good on camera," said Aftab. "They didn't understand that jail is jail."
In the case of teens charged with child pornography, they simply don't see a difference between posting provocative pictures on MySpace and sending nude photos to friends.
"These kids are now seeing stuff on MySpace and other places online where other kids are posing in sexual poses in the nude performing real or mock sex, and to them it's just their 15 megabytes of fame. They think it's the norm," she said.
Aftab says the solution is counseling and education. The former should enlist mental health experts, and the latter should involve teen educators, since teens don't listen to adults when it comes to regulating their behavior.