June 19, 2012

Sexting a dangerous game

Penny Clute, The Law and You

---- — Not everyone who breaks the law is a real criminal. Most of the people I saw as defendants in Plattsburgh City Court made bad, even stupid, choices. Like the high-school kids who “sexted,” sending text or Twitter messages with nude or semi-nude photographs of themselves attached. The sender takes his or her own photos and willingly sends them to a boyfriend or girlfriend or someone else they trust.

They thought it was fun and expected it was private, just between the two of them. However, that is not guaranteed. The recipient can make it available for others, even the whole school, to see and share. This happens when kids get mad at each other or when images are shared with a couple of friends, who then share them with others.

It also happens when the recipient is deceiving you and is not the trustworthy person you thought. We’ve seen cases where the threat to post the photo is essentially used to try to blackmail the person, to make them do something they do not want to do, including staying in a relationship they want to leave.

An instant communication can have lifetime consequences.

At age 16 in New York state, a person who breaks the law is charged as an adult. So City Court and the district attorney see quite a few teenagers. After your 16th birthday, you no longer go to family court; your case is in criminal court.


New York has long had laws against harassing or intimidating another person. For decades, these cases involved taunts or threats made in person, by letter or telephone. Now such offensive behavior is more likely to be found on Facebook or Twitter or in text messages. Each of these methods can increase the harassment and devastating impact far beyond that of previous times. A single post on Facebook or Twitter is seen by multitudes. Although it is not sent directly to the targeted person, the harm to that victim can be far greater than if it were. It can influence others to join in the harassment and intimidation, and publicly humiliate the target. Offensive text messaging can be nonstop, sending dozens, hundreds of messages.

People who are the targets of this behavior can save the texts for the police, as they are evidence that the sender is harassing, or even stalking, them. The person may also be charged with the crime of “coercion” if the behavior has prevented you from doing something you have the right to do, such as stopping the use of your device or changing your account to avoid dealing with the messages.

There are many devices now that can be used to text. I recently learned that young kids who do not have cellphones but do have iPods, androids or gaming devices are accessing Facebook, as well as texting one another. So long as the device has wifi, it can be used for these purposes — it does not have to be a Smartphone. Parents who are monitoring cellphones and computers may be overlooking other devices.


An impulsive decision to send a sexual message or photograph of yourself, or an angry decision to expose such a photo that someone else sent you, can have very negative impacts for all involved. For the person whose photo is shared, life at school becomes extremely difficult. Ridicule and bullying often follow, which can lead to depression, anxiety, even suicidal thoughts. The person feels betrayed, exposed and humiliated.

Anyone who shared the photo can be prosecuted. Depending on how explicit the photograph is and the ages of those involved, someone who possesses it on their phone or computer — even the person in the photo — can be charged with a crime, perhaps a felony. In some cases, the person convicted may have to register as a sex offender.

These are huge, long-lasting consequences, all of which can be avoided by respecting your own and other people’s privacy. If you would not want your parents and teachers to see a photo or message, do not send them in the first place. Once you do, you have no control over where it goes.