When three US high school students from Virginia made mobile phone videos of drunken sex acts with fellow teens and shared them among themselves, they ended up in court last week facing charges usually reserved for adult predators: child pornography.
The case is one of a number where teens caught ''sexting'' have been charged with a crime that can carry a sentence of 20 years and could require registry as a sex offender.
In many other US states, the law has not caught up with the combustible mix of teens, technology and sex that has made sexting an issue. Prosecutors must rely on a patchwork of laws created before the rise of smartphones to handle such cases.
Some parents and rights groups are calling for a new law that would distinguish sexting from child pornography, create lesser punishments and focus on educating teenagers, not punishing them. But they also acknowledge that young victims can be devastated when embarrassing photos or videos are spread to their peers.
A mother whose 15-year-old son was charged with 12 counts of child pornography for sexting called the experience a nightmare. She said the teen, who has Asperger's syndrome, was naive when he sent out a topless photo of a classmate. ''He is thinking his life was at an end. He could be labelled as a sex offender,'' she said.
Parents of two teens in Ohio and Florida say their daughters committed suicide when they were ridiculed after sexually explicit images of them were forwarded to others. And sexted images and videos can be found by child pornographers, who trade them on the internet.
The three students on trial were charged in January with possession and distribution of child pornography after they filmed themselves engaging in sex acts with at least six teenage girls. All the sex acts were consensual and the 10 videos were filmed at parties at the teenagers' homes, beginning in December 2011. Legislators say they worry a law to make sexting a misdemeanour could unintentionally open a loophole that might be exploited by paedophiles.
In addition, the circumstances of such cases vary widely. They range from a girl willingly texting a racy photo of herself to a boyfriend who does not share it to teens secretly recording sex acts and maliciously spreading the videos.
In the US, at least 20 states have passed legislation on sexting since 2009, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. States have generally moved to create more lenient punishments for sexting teens and to shield them from having to register as sex offenders. A University of New Hampshire survey found 7 per cent of young people had received a nude or nearly nude image, while 1 per cent said they had created sexually explicit images of themselves.
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