By Louise Weber, MLN Legislative Research Manager
The joint Judiciary Committee reported out House Bill 4370 (replacing MA H1567) on June 6th, 2016, with language suggested by Media Literacy Now. The act, “relative to transmitting indecent visual depictions by teens,” describes the offense and related penalties, but also recognizes that a basic educational foundation is needed – about illegal sexting and its potential broader, non-legal consequences.
The bill, sponsored by State Rep. Jeffrey Roy, (also a co-sponsor of MLN’s proposed media literacy education legislation H471), addresses youth sexting as an issue that needs a media literacy solution.
The media environment that children and teens are exposed to for hours every day is packed with provocative imagery. This suggests to kids that it’s “normal” and acceptable to share sexually explicit imagery. The pervasiveness of this culture is shown by a 2014 Drexel University survey which reported that more than 50% of college students had exchanged sexually explicit photos or messages as minors.
For minors, this omnipresent, sexually-tinged visual environment is frequently complicated by laws originally designed to govern serious child pornography and child exploitation offenses. The punishments these convictions carry – including prison sentences and/or life-long sex offender registration – are considered by many prosecutors as too severe for adolescents.
Teaching critical thinking skills and creating an understanding of the potential negative effects of the misuse of social media can create more thoughtful and positive use of the technology. Proactive media literacy education can change the culture around sexting by helping youth recognize that participating in a social digital environment requires an awareness of ethical (as well as legal) concerns.
Ultimately, media literacy education can demonstrate that sexting is an activity potentially laden with complicated issues of empathy, honesty, and trust. Using social media responsibly doesn’t have to have negative consequences, legal or otherwise.