A survey of 1,280 teens and young adults conducted by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unwanted Pregnancy and CosmoGirl.com finds that 22% of girls and 18% of boys said they have electronically sent or posted nude or semi-nude images.

The impulse to make a nude self-portrait is neither new, nor specific to kids. In the introduction to a collection of male nude self-portraits, actor Alan Cumming states ‘I think everyone secretly wants to take nude self-portraits. To be able to see ourselves as others see us – whether passive or in the throes of passion – is always illuminating, but isn’t it also erotic just to have in our possession an image that captured a moment in our lives when we were at our barest?’

The cell phone plus camera technology that makes dissemination easy is, of course, new. As are the multiplying criminal charges against teens for distributing child porn (i.e. self-portraits). A 15-year-old girl from central Pennsylvania, for instance, faces child pornography charges after police say she sent nude pictures of herself over the Internet. Sticking the label of child pornographer on a 15 or 16 year old girl simply because she took a picture of herself and sent it to her boyfriend or another friend is ridiculous. Surely, her parents might be uncomfortable with such behaviour – surely they must talk to her about it, but criminal charges?! And, if these criminal charges affect, as per the stats mentioned  above, 22% of girls, we are left with an army of teen child abusers – which both makes light of the real gravity of child abuse and does nothing to educate kids about the real hazards of their behavior. And hazards there are: once electronically disseminated, the image may travel far and wide and not only be seen by every snickering fool in school, but may embarass you years later when, say, you are running for office.

It is disturbing to see sexting, a largely harmless teen experimentation with a new medium, in the same boat as child porn traffic. If only the efforts of prosecuting those kids went into an educational initiative to inform them about the possible consequences of having private images made public and potentially disseminated on the Internet for all to see.

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