It’s time for a law to address underage sexting. This phenomenon, made popular and possible by cellphone communication and camera technology, involves sending nude or partial nude photos of one’s self or others via smartphones. It’s disturbingly popular among many middle school and high school students, according to recent studies, and current law has not kept up to date, which means consequences for underage sexters can be more serious than they think.

For example, as it stands, a 14-year-old who sends a nude photo of himself to his girlfriend can be charged under the law that was written with adult pedophiles in mind. It’s a felony under current law to disseminate sexually explicit material featuring a minor, and in some instances, police say, the boy could be required to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life because he technically engaged in child pornography.

Clearly, that’s an unreasonable punishment for a childish mistake, and the law should be updated to take youth sexting into account.

Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, D-Sanford, is undertaking that effort with the support of School Resource Officers Michael Gordon in Sanford and Jason Solomon at Regional School Unit 57, among others. She’s submitted LD 662 to address youth sexting specifically, and has said it is intended to get a discussion going within the criminal justice committee of the Legislature. They’ll discuss the bill in a work session today and are expected to draft the bill’s specific content. We hope they see its merit and develop strong provisions to discourage sexting among minors while metering out punishments that fall short of treating them the same as adults convicted of distributing or downloading child pornography.

Also important is addressing another aspect of sexting that is far more harmful: The “sexts” that are sent out after that teenage breakup, when those supposedly private photos are sent on to other people without the consent of the person in the picture. Having an intimate photo of yourself sent out to unintended recipients ”“ perhaps even with a malicious message ”“ would be embarrassing at any age, but can be devastating to a young person whose sexuality and social skills are just developing.

We like Gordon’s proposal: Make consensual sexting of images of minors a civil violation, with a fine and community service for those under age 18; and prosecute sexting of images of minors as a Class E misdemeanor if the information is transmitted without consent.

These punishments seem to better fit the crime and would remove the threat of a minor being forever consigned to a sex offender registry for sending sexual images.

In the meantime, it’s important for parents and other adults in the lives of teens and pre-teens to warn them of the dangers of sexting and have them understand all the reasons why it’s a bad idea. This is one of those instances where adults shouldn’t be so naïve as to take the “my kid would never do that” stance and shrug it off. According to recent studies by the FBI, nearly one in six teens who have a cellphone and are between the ages of 12-17 have received nude or semi-nude photos from someone they know. About 20 percent of teens have sent such pictures of themselves or admitted to posting them online, according to another FBI study.

Cellphone technology has given youth just one more way to lose their innocence too early, at a time when few people have a complete understanding of the long-term implications of what seem like minor actions. Updating this law would help give them more breathing space to learn from their mistakes.

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Today’s editorial was written by Managing Editor Kristen Schulze Muszynski on behalf of the Journal Tribune Editorial Board. Questions? Comments? Contact Kristen by calling 282-1535, Ext. 322, or via email at [email protected].