< Unsafe Sext


Friday, December 18, 2009

BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.

BOB GARFIELD: And, I'm Bob Garfield. In an Associated Press MTV poll released this month, a quarter of the teenage respondents said they'd been, quote, “involved in sexting in some way.” Beginning late last year, some prosecutors made headlines when they enforced child pornography laws against kids who had texted or emailed naked photographs of themselves. The prosecutors argued that taking a nude self-portrait is a crime if you’re a minor. Since then, law enforcement seems mostly to have dropped that argument, but no one else has come up with a way to diffuse this combustible combination of adolescent psychology and technology. Slate senior editor Emily Bazelon has been writing about the issue. She joins me. Emily, welcome.

EMILY BAZELON: Thanks for having me.

BOB GARFIELD: Let's start with Hope Witsell, please. Tell me about her story.

EMILY BAZELON: Hope Witsell was 13. She grew up in a Florida suburb. And in September she hung herself with a pink scarf in her bedroom. This was a few months after sending out a photograph of her breasts to a boy at school, a photograph that someone forwarded to a bunch of other teenagers at her school – this is a middle school – and which then led to her being tormented in the hallways and to writing very mournfully about the names she was being called. And so, it seems like there is a real link here between this act of sexting and this girl’s tragic suicide.

BOB GARFIELD: And the reason we're talking about Hope is because, as horrifying as this tragedy is, it’s not necessarily unique. Kids tend to immediately pass these images on to their friends, and then all hell breaks loose.

EMILY BAZELON: Right. It seems incredibly rash and stupid to send a naked picture of yourself over a cell phone, but you’re sending it originally to someone you trust. This is a friend or a guy you like. It’s not someone you’re expecting to be betrayed by. But the problem is that once these pictures are in existence, it’s all too easy for them to get forwarded on, and then they become fodder for gossip and the kind of salacious scandal that we all are kind of addicted to, and teenagers perhaps most of all.

BOB GARFIELD: There is a tendency to look at the technology and focus there and say that this is somehow at fault; we have to harness this technology somehow. How are authorities dealing with this?

EMILY BAZELON: When we started talking about this about a year ago, it seemed like prosecutors were thinking of cracking down on the kids who were sending the photos. Now, there seems to be a pulling back from that and a realization that we passed these child porn statutes to protect kids, so it doesn't really make sense to use them to go after children. A couple of states have already downgraded their laws about child porn, so that they aren't punishing sexting in the same way. But that leaves open the question of how we are supposed to address this. Technology becomes this kind of diabolically perfect vehicle for bullying, which obviously is like a traditional thing. That’s always happened. Kids have always found ways to be mean to each other. But now there’s a way to be mean simply by touching a button, and so the tormentor is removed from the person he or she is hurting.

BOB GARFIELD: One final thought. I saw some reporting done by The Today Show about the Hope Witsell story, and the kids who went to her middle school are obviously mortified, and they seem to have been scared straight. Is there anybody who’s going into schools with Hope Witsell’s story or stories like that and doing on the subject of cyberbullying what we've seen with drunk driving and drug use and various other social ills over the years?

EMILY BAZELON: I think that is just starting to happen. There is a group called the Cyberbullying Research Center in Florida. It’s run by two academics named Sameer Handuja and Justin Patchin, and they – I was talking to them last week – they go around talking to kids and educators in different parts of the country. And they said that they have been using for a long time the story of Megan Meier, the Missouri teenager who committed suicide after cyberbullying by the mother of a friend of hers, and now that they would be adding the story of Hope Witsell to the sessions they do, in an effort to make kids sit up and pay attention to the consequences of these kinds of acts.

BOB GARFIELD: Emily, thank you so much.

EMILY BAZELON: Thanks for having me.

BOB GARFIELD: Emily Bazelon writes about law for Slate.