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Sexting: why the latest prosecution seems pointless

The teen practice of sending nude pictures by cell phone continues to shock unsuspecting parents. The latest prosecution is unconvincing.

It seems that adults continue to be shocked that teens are choosing to use the technology at their fingertips not just to say 'I'll Be Home at 10' and 'I Love You' but to send naked pictures of themselves to members of their target sex.

Last summer, there was outrage in Colorado. More recently, it seems that parents have been waking up in all parts of the country, removing themselves from re-runs of Sex and the City and Law and Order and howling that little Jenna has exposed herself by digital means to that ruffian from the rough part of town.

In Cincinnati, they talk about 'kids gone wild'.

Now Pennsylvania has taken its outrage so far past third base that home plate is but a slide(show) away. Three girls (aged, according to police, 14 or 15) who allegedly sent unclothed pictures and the three boys (aged 16 or 17) who allegedly received them were charged with child pornography.

If found guilty, not only could these kids go to jail, but they would have to sign on to the sex offenders list for the next 10 years.

According to the National Campaign to Support Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 20% of teens admit to participating in sexting. And though sending such pictures is illegal, CBS News Legal Analyst Lisa Bloom offered some perspective: "What are you going to do, lock up 20% of America's teens?"

I know there are some people who might think this a good idea. And there will be some who believe the Pennsylvania prosecution might be a good idea. But what can it possibly achieve?

One can perhaps understand why kids send naked pictures of themselves- to attract attention for one misguided reason or another. One can even understand (and find despicable) the motivations of those who forward sexted photos for their own amusement and that of their barely legal and mentally able friends.

An example would be this case from Saratoga County, NY.

In 2007, a group of boys shared an image a 15-year-old girl sent to one of them. Then, because boys will be animals, they held a competition. The winner was the one who showed the finest artistic skills in using the girl's image. Yes, these fine chaps produced animations and other visual low-jinks. Even a nasty little PowerPoint presentation. They were rightly placed into the hands of the law.

CC Enzo's images

However, the Pennsylvania case seems a little grayer. The six teens were charged only because one of their cell phones was confiscated in class. Its owner had left it turned on, a violation of school policy. Does it not seem a little peculiar that someone, perhaps the confiscator, allegedly thought it perfectly acceptable not only to take the phone, but to nose his or her way through its contents?

Police Captain George Seranko said that the first photograph was "a self portrait taken of a juvenile female taking pictures of her body, nude."

So, um, OK. Naked pictures. But no ordinary naked pictures, according to Capt. Seranko. They "weren't just breasts; they showed female anatomy."

Before that last distinction could be successfully parsed, he added: "It's very dangerous. Once it's on a cell phone, that cell phone can be put on the Internet where everyone in the world can get access to that juvenile picture. You don't realize what you are doing until it's already done."

As with so many things in life. But is this a reason to prosecute the self-portraiting photographer and potentially branding her a sex offender for at least the next 10 years? Isn't the fact that she has risked her female anatomy being on the web till Armageddon punishment enough?

Is there really no other way to educate kids that they might be making problems for themselves? Will this prosecution suddenly force Pennsylvania's kids to limit themselves to photographing wildlife? Perhaps not.

Kids do dumb things. Just as their parents did. Technology can magnify those things and send them out into a much wider arena than ever before. Just as adults are discovering their own personal information (and, on occasion, a past they wish they could forget) has suddenly taken on a sometimes depressingly public air.

By all means, punish the boys and girls who receive sexted pictures and disseminate them in a crude, heartless and offensive way to the outside world. But in the Pennsylvania case, the boys have been charged with possession, not distribution. It is only the girls who have been charged with 'manufacturing, disseminating or possessing child pornography.'

Somehow, it seems as if the prosecutors are revealing more about themselves and their frustrations than did the teens.