In April, residents of Louisa County, Va., were shocked to learn of a sexting "ring" among the town's teenagers. When Hanna Rosin asked teens from Louisa County High School how many people they knew who had sexted, a lot of them replied: "Everyone." But what was originally characterized in the media as an organized criminal affair was soon revealed to be widespread teen behavior.
"I think we as a culture don't know whether to be utterly alarmed by sexting, or think of it as a normal part of teenage sexual experimentation," Rosin tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.
In her report on the Louisa County scandal for The Atlantic, Rosin set out to address the question, why are so many teenagers sending each other nude photos? How much does teen sexting have to do with actual sex? How should parents, and communities, respond? And how do child pornography laws apply?
Rosin's article, "Why Kids Sext," appears in the November issue of The Atlantic.
On the police investigation of the Louisa County sexting case
[The police] call the girls in and they think there's something really, really wrong — something unusual and sinister happening right under their nose — that's how the investigation starts. ... But by the law any picture of a minor is illegal and so they just ask the girl[s] who they call in for interviews, "Well, do you know anyone else who has naked pictures on their phone?"
And everyone says, "Yeah! I know five people," or "I know 10 people."
And remember: This is a relatively small town so people are trusting the police officers. They all know each other. So then they call in five people and then they call in five people and then they call in five people and pretty soon the investigator has bins full of cellphones with pictures of naked kids that belong to teenagers. ...
So they've moved from thinking this is sinister to realizing, within a few days, this is completely common.
On how these teenage girls felt about the boys seeing pictures of them naked
That's what's amazing to me that this is so common given what we all know to be true about teenage awkwardness. The girls would actually get around this. I mean, some girls are just into it. They look great, they look like the pop stars they see, they're proud to send their pictures.
People would get around this by taking pictures of parts of their body, like they might just do the upper part of their body, or they might take a picture in a dark room or at certain angles. People worked hard at these pictures — not the guys, they just take one kind of picture — but the girls worked pretty hard at these pictures to make them look like the pictures that they saw in other magazines.
On what the sexts mean to the boys who receive them
The sexts are just their currency. The girls described it to me as, "Oh, [it's like] the guys are collecting baseball cards or Pokemon cards." They don't actually take them that seriously. They're not a huge part of their sex life; it's just something [the boys] collect. ... It's cool to have one that nobody else has. It's kind of a social currency more than it is a springboard for fantasy, which is kind of surprising.
There's so much free porn out there that these pictures serve a different role. These guys look at these pictures for five seconds; they're just not that big of a deal to them. And so sending them along is kind of fun. ... It seems like a prank.
On how smartphones are changing how kids socialize
Kids do stay up in the middle of the night and text — that's kind of a known phenomenon that once they finish their homework and their after-school activities and they've had dinner and spent time with the family, [the middle of the night] is the time when they're all hanging out on their phones.
So your choices here are to take away their phone or limit ... their evening phone time, or ... to think about, "Why is this happening? Why is it that kids have to stay up all night hanging out with their friends?" ...
Some of this is just the way that children are being raised today, which is that they're so scheduled and they've got so much to do, and so many after-school activities, and every minute of their time is watched and monitored and designed for their self-improvement that they don't really have a space to be teenagers.
On how there is no safe sexting
Let's say you have the most trustworthy boyfriend or girlfriend in the universe. ... This person puts their phone down — and this is a case that's actually happened — they put their phone down in a locker room in high school and they go and take a shower or get dressed. Somebody else picks up the phone and as a prank, instantly sends that naked picture to everyone on the contact list, which includes Grandma, Grandpa, your mom, everybody on the contact list. So that can happen. Once the photo exists, it can be sent out.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Why are so many teenagers sending nude selfies to each other? What do they hope to get in return? How much or how little does teen sexting have to do with actual sex? How should parents and communities respond? And how are child pornography laws being applied to sexting? These are the questions my guest, Hanna Rosin, set out to answer when she decided to report on a teen sexting scandal in Louisa County, Virginia. Her article, "Why Kids Sext," is in the November issue of The Atlantic. Rosin is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and cofounded Double X, the Slate women's site.
Hanna Rosin, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to write about sexting?
HANNA ROSIN: A couple of reasons. One, I have a teenage daughter at home, so I feel like these issues are coming at me quickly. I've also got two other sons, so these are things that I naturally think about. Secondly, I had in my head this contradiction that on the one hand, sexting seems common. You hear about it. You read about it in the papers. And on the other hand, it's illegal in most places. So I guess I just couldn't square those two things.
GROSS: So you chose one place to use as a case study. Tell us why you chose this as a case study.
ROSIN: I heard on the radio, actually, a story about Louisa County, Virginia. And in that story, they reported it as a sexting ring. That's how the newspapers reported it. Now, ring is a fairly sinister word, you know? We associate that with mastermind, you know, or maybe - maybe child pornography. They said a hundred kids in a high school were caught in a sexting ring. And so for one thing, I couldn't, in my head, understand what a sexting ring was or how it worked. So I was curious about that. But then, the quotes from the sheriff in the town seemed fairly calm. You know, he didn't seem sort of all worked up and hysterical. He seemed like he was going to take a cautious approach. And so that - again, here's the dichotomy I'd been thinking about. So I wanted to explore what it actually looked like in a real place with real teenagers and real parents and real sheriffs and that kind of thing.
GROSS: So you went down to Louisa County to find out so what is this sexting ring. What was it? Like, what was the scope of the sexting that was discovered among high school students and teenagers in this county?
ROSIN: In this particular case, the sexting ring involved an Instagram page. It was an Instagram page, which was called LC - which stands for Louisa County - Hoes. We all know what hoes are - and THOTs, which is That Hoe Over There, which is just sort of another word for hoes that people use. And it had a picture of - about a hundred pictures of girls in the high school and some girls in the middle school. So that's basically the evidence that the newspapers and the sheriff were presented with when they described this as a sexting ring. They just knew that up on Instagram, which is a public site, were a hundred naked and let's say scantily clad, sexy pictures of girls in the school, from the town.
GROSS: And how was this discovered?
ROSIN: A mom called, which is always how it's discovered in these cases. Basically, you know, someone called this mother and said, hey, there's a picture of your daughter on this Instagram page, sent her a screenshot - 'cause the kids know everything. So, you know, one kid will be upset and call one mom who are they're friends with. And then the mom called up the page, and she had the cell phone number of a police officer who was also the school resource officer. So she immediately called him. And then the police were involved. And then, suddenly, everyone knew. And the next day in school, a similar thing happened. You know, one girl or one guy would show another girl, oh, my gosh, your picture's on the page. What are you going to do? And then they would freak out and go to the principal's office. So it all happens fairly quickly.
GROSS: Did the girls whose photos were on this Instagram page know that their photos were on the page?
ROSIN: For the most part, absolutely not. They were embarrassed and horrified because once it's public, everybody knows. And your parents can see. So no, they had no idea that their photos ended up on this page. Most of them probably had no idea that their photos had been forwarded to anyone other than the person that they'd sent them to. Now, there were some exceptions. The police did - found that there were a couple of girls, and particularly older girls - and this is important - who basically said to them, yeah, I know my pictures on the page. It seemed like they had posed for the page, and they might have even sent two or three pictures of themselves posing for the page to the guys who set up the page.
GROSS: But mostly, these were photos that were sent by a girl to a boy, the girl thinking it ends there. He's going...
ROSIN: Yeah, the common story of origin, the guys - the police officers heard - because, you know, this is the evidence they have. So who are they going to call in to investigate or talk to the girls on the page? - because there's their picture. So that's what they know to start with. And so they call them in. And the common story they heard is, yeah, I sent this to my boyfriend or I sent this to some guy, and I have no idea how it got to this person or that person. And sometimes, oh, yeah, he was my boyfriend, sometimes, he was my boyfriend for a couple of months, sometimes, I wanted him to be my boyfriend and sometimes, he was just a guy I was flirting with.
GROSS: So the authorities who were called in on this case basically discover there is kind of nothing unusual happening here, that all of the other neighboring counties have a lot of sexting going on. What did they discover about what's happening in other places?
ROSIN: So initially, they start out - they're dealing with a serious crime. They get Instagram to shut down the page. They call the girls in. And they think there's something really, really wrong, something unusual and sinister happening right under their nose. That's how the investigation starts. But by the law, any picture of a minor is illegal. And so they just ask the girls, who they call in for interviews, well, do you know anyone else who has naked pictures on their phone? You know, we're not talking about the Instagram page now. We're just asking; do you know anyone else who might have sex - naked pictures on their phone? And everyone says, yeah, I know five people - or I know ten people. And remember, this is a relatively small town. So people are trusting the police officers. They all know each other. So then, they call in five people. And it's like that old shampoo commercial. And then they call in five people, and then they call in five people. And pretty soon, the investigator has bins full of cell phones with pictures of naked kids that belong to teenagers. That's what the investigators deal with. So, you know, they've moved from thinking this is sinister to realizing, within a few days, this is completely common. And every kid will tell them that. Why am I here? Like, this is totally common. Of course I know kids who have naked pictures on their cell phone. So that's the story the investigators pick up from the kids. It's like an education for them pretty quickly.
GROSS: How does the knowledge that this is very common, that a lot of teenagers are doing it in this county and in other counties and probably all across America - how does that affect how the authorities in Louisa County deal with it legally? 'Cause you're dealing with children. Do you want - how much do you want to punish them? Do you want - do you want them to have criminal records because of this?
ROSIN: Exactly. So Louisa County, like every other sheriff's office or police department that has to deal with this, runs into this dilemma and is suddenly confused. It's just very hard to know how to handle this. A picture of a minor, wherever it is, is a dangerous thing. It's considered child pornography, even if the kid made the picture themselves. And so on the one hand, you are dealing with one of the most heinous crimes. On the other hand, you have common sense. You've got a sheriff who knows these kids, sees them every day, knows their parents and thinks, really? Am I going to prosecute these kids - all of them - for child pornography? Isn't child pornography designed to protect children from adults? So it's an extremely confusing situation where, in the middle of this investigation, you thought it was one thing. And then, you land in this terribly confusing spot where you've got all these competing interests which are pulling against each other.
GROSS: And as you point out in your article, it's kind of confusing. Who are the victims, and who are the perpetrators?
ROSIN: Exactly. The sheriff involved went from describing - during the course of the interview, at first he thought, OK, I've got a hundred victims on this page. And then, as he heard the stories and sort of saw where the pictures came from, he couldn't really decide. Are they really victims? So he started calling them victims. And then, by the end, he was saying to himself, well, I guess they sort of victimized themselves. That's where he got to in the middle of the interview because they sent out the pictures. And they didn't really know what was going to happen to them. Now, that's not what ultimately happened, but that's part of the course of the investigation is this mass confusion, which I think is culturally true. I think we as a culture don't know whether to be utterly alarmed by sexting or think of it as a normal part of teenage sexual experimentation.
GROSS: Again, in the kind of muddy territory of who's the perpetrator and who's the victim, if a girl sends a photo to a boy that she likes and the boy wants the photo, you know, has the girl done something wrong? But if the boy keeps the photo to himself, has he done something wrong? But if the boy then sends the photo to other people without the girl's permission, that seems to be where you really draw the line, right?
ROSIN: Is that a crime?
GROSS: Is that a crime? Yeah.
ROSIN: So, Terry, everything you just described is a crime in most states. And I guess part of my story is to get us to look at that and say, should it be? I mean, I think the distinction should be things that are done without someone's consent, that we should start, as a society, to look very closely at if a guy - and we're saying guys and girls, but boys send as many sexts as girls. So I just want to say that. But if somebody puts out a picture on Instagram that the person didn't want there, didn't give anybody's permission to be there and especially if the person's a minor, in my opinion, that's the crime. But the way the law is written now in pretty much every state, everything you described is a crime. Taking a picture of yourself as a minor and having it in your cell phone and sending it to nobody is a crime because you are in possession of child pornography. So this is a really tricky issue.
GROSS: Yes. (Laughter). So that means that, like, teenagers around the country, if this was enforced, could have records.
ROSIN: A lot of them. I mean, the research shows that in the upper teens - meaning 17-year-olds, 18-year-olds - 30 percent of them, when you check, regularly have sexted, have sent a sext, have received a sext. So yes, we are talking about a third of teenagers are criminals. And in most states, it's a felony because it's child pornography. So it's a pretty serious crime. So you can see the dilemma for law enforcement. What are they supposed to do?
GROSS: You say that in some states, it's legal for two 16-year-olds to have sex. But if they take pictures, it's a matter for the police.
ROSIN: In every state, pretty much. It's just that some states have passed specific sexting laws. And what the sexting laws do is lower the criminal penalty. So they try and take it out of the realm of child pornography and give police departments another alternative. But they haven't taken it out of the realm of crime. So for most of them, it's still a crime. It just might be a crime, you know, that's not a felony or that's not, you know, punishable by many years in prison.
GROSS: So how did the police in Louisa County decide to deal with the sexting?
ROSIN: The police in Louisa County started out thinking they were dealing with a terrible crime, then realizing it was completely common. And then they kind of closed the loop by doing the right thing, I think, and focusing on the guys who had set up the page. They decided, after a while, they were going to return all the cell phones to the kids who just had a sext on them, you know, give them a stern lecture, basically explain to them the consequences of these things and then really focus on trying to catch the guys and build evidence against the people who had set up the page.
GROSS: When the phones were returned, were the photos erased?
ROSIN: Yes. They erased the phones. But as we all know, you know, there's the cloud. If someone erased my phone, I could just go to the iPhone store, get a new one and plug in everything I had. But yes, they did erase the phones.
GROSS: So is the town or the school or the state reevaluating its policies on sexting?
ROSIN: No, because there's nothing the town can do. I mean, until - Virginia has tried to pass has a sexting statute for many years. I talked to the guy who ran the legal committee that's involved in this. And they just can't because of child pornography - people are just worried. You know, they do not want a world in which photos of minors naked or scantily clad can be in any way legal or acceptable. That's just not a position that the prosecutors can accept. And so they just get stuck every time. And they can't decide what to do. So without guidance from higher authorities, the police have to do what the police have to do. And I think in lots of cases, they just use discretion. You know, what you - we're in a situation now where we have to depend on a sheriff with common sense or a police officer with common sense and a prosecutor who doesn't, you know, necessarily want to make an example of somebody, but wants to treat the situation humanely.
GROSS: If you are just joining us, my guest is Hanna Rosin. And in the November issue of The Atlantic, she has an article called "Why Kids Text." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Hanna Rosin. In the November edition of The Atlantic, she has an article called, "Why Kids Sext." She writes a lot about women's issues. She writes for Slate as well as the Atlantic, and she is one of the founders of Double X - the women's site on Slate Magazine.
So, Hanna, you talked to a lot of the girls whose photos ended up on this Instagram page. How did they feel about their photos being public when they weren't intended to be that way? They were intended to be sent to the person they were sent to.
ROSIN: They felt betrayed, but they were not incredibly surprised, I have to say. People know that this is a risk, that photos can get out there. Yet, there is a big distinction because at the moment that the kid is sending the sext, the boy or the girl, it seems private and intimate and a little bit risky, but risky in a kind of fun way and then as it gets out into the world, that's where the trouble starts. And so, you know, you have it out to people who you didn't intend to see it, and in some cases that's trouble enough. I mean, we've had cases of people who have committed suicide after their pictures got out in the school community and they were embarrassed. I'm not saying there's a cause-and-effect there, I'm just saying we've had cases like that. And then the police investigation will just compound the humiliation. I mean, that's why you really wanted to ask for the mercy of the officers, because for a young girl, particularly to have her picture be seen and reviewed by her parents and lots of police officers, most of whom are men, is extra humiliating and really just compounds the disaster here in many cases.
GROSS: Did a lot of the girls feel totally betrayed by the boys they trusted these photos with?
ROSIN: I think totally betrayed is maybe strong. They felt betrayed, but I think the sexts are a fluid part of the sexual dynamic. So it's not like we're talking about a, you know, boyfriend or an ex-husband or somebody you've known for a long time and then suddenly they're sending your pictures to your employer. It's not quite at that level of, say, revenge-porn, which is a whole other phenomenon. It's high school life and so, you know, you might have sent this picture to someone who was pressuring you to send it, but who you actually didn't know that well. So in your heart of hearts, you're not super shocked that the picture got out.
GROSS: I think, maybe things have really changed, but I think a lot of girls in their early-teens or in their late-teens are kind of insecure about their bodies. They think they're too fat, they think they're too - their breasts are too big or they're not big enough or there's something funny looking about them in some private part of their body. And I just wonder how girls of that age feel showing their bodies to one boy in a photo or knowing that it might become public and be shown to a lot of other boys, I just wonder how much of it is pressure and how much of it is - that they're actually comfortable doing it.
ROSIN: Well, this was amazing to me. That was actually - once I started to talk to the teenagers, that's the thing I almost wondered about most. I tried to put myself in my teenage frame of mind and think, well, I would just never have sent a naked picture, just because, you know, you're embarrassed at that age. Like, your body is kind of new to you, like you said, and you're just not really sure about it and you're insecure and you see these other pictures and they don't really look like your body. So that's what's amazing to me, that this is so common given what we all know to be true about teenage awkwardness. The girls would actually get around this. I mean, some girls are just into it, you know? They look great, you know, they just - they look like the star, you know, the pop stars they see. They're proud to send their pictures. People would get around this by taking pictures of parts of their body. Like, they might just take, you know, they might just do the upper part of their body or they might take a picture kind of in a dark room or at certain angles. I mean, people worked hard at these pictures. Not the guys, you know, they just one kind of picture, but the girls worked pretty hard at these pictures and to make them look like the pictures that they saw in other, you know, magazines.
GROSS: You talked to boys, too. Did boys explain to you why they promised to delete photos or keep them private and they didn't? They sent it around to other people, it ended up on Instagram.
ROSIN: Well, this is the heartbreak of reporting a story like this. The double standards and (laughter) you know, the kind of fundamental betrayals between men and women that exist in a Tennessee Williams play still exist in life. You have, you know - you know, guys who are explaining their game to me, you know, and their game is how they get a picture from a girl. And you'd ask her, you know, 15, 20 times, come on, you're so beautiful, you know, I really want to see you, I really want to be with you, you look so great all the time. And then the girl would send the picture. And then I asked, you know, so what'd you think after she sent the picture? And then they would start to talk about how they were hoes and, you know, they'd just give up the picture no problem and then they'd never talk to the girl again. I mean, you sort of want this not to be true anymore, right? You think like in an era where people see, you know, porn and everyone's kind of half-dressed and pop stars are always half-naked, in a way that they weren't even 30-years-ago, like, why are these dynamics still true? And yet they are still true.
GROSS: It must have been really frustrating to you (laughter) to talk to these boys who felt that what they were doing was fine. To, like, sweet talk a girl into sexting and then call her a hoe when she finally complied.
ROSIN: Yeah, I mean, I'd like to believe that they were just - that that was kind of bragging, the guys who are the best examples of that in my story are younger than the rest of the people I interviewed. They're 15 and not, you know, 17 or 18. And so they're bragging just to show off to each other and show off to me, but even the fact that that dynamic and that idiom still exists is depressing. And I like to think, like, faced with an actual girl, they wouldn't be that disrespectful. But I guess this whole legal case shows otherwise. I mean, the fact that two guys sat down collected - you know, got everyone in the town, got the guys presumably, and some girls, to send them pictures that they could then post on the page, shows that, yes, these things are still true. That these guys feel free to do with these pictures of naked girls who they know exactly what they want to.
GROSS: Hanna Rosin will be back in the second half of the show. Her article "Why Kids Sext" is the cover story of the November issue The Atlantic. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. We're talking about teen sexting with Hannah Rosin. Her article "Why Kids Sext" is the cover story of the November issue of The Atlantic. She reports on a sexting scandal in Louisa County, Virginia, in which the nude selfies of dozens of teenagers were posted on Instagram without their knowledge or permission. Although nude photos of underage teens come under child pornography laws, local law enforcement authorities decided not to prosecute the teenagers who sexted in part because the authorities discovered how common teen sexting is. But they have been investigating who posted the photos on Instagram.
Do you know, do the authorities know exactly how these photos ended up on this Instagram page?
ROSIN: They know, but they can't prove it. So basically, they know that there is a couple of guys who solicited photos. There may have been a middleman or not. And we're talking about teenagers here. I don't know that they're all under 18, but teenagers. And they got the guys in the school. And again, some girls - just send me pictures - and by the way, this is common. This is not a freak occurrence. The guys say this happens in lots of towns. And they say OK, when we reach about 100 pictures, we'll open the page, which is - which again is a common dynamic. And so they collect all the pictures. And once they have enough to create what they consider a good page, they open up the page, and everyone looks at the page really quickly. Although if someone is on it - a parent or a law enforcement - it also gets shut down really quickly.
GROSS: So when you talked to some of the boys who had received sexts from girls, sexts often that they had asked for and then betrayed the girls by forwarding it to the guys who were doing this Instagram page and making those sexts public, one of the things you learn is that these sexts that the boys received from girls, they weren't using those pictures for their fantasy lives. They were turning to porn for their fantasy lives. So what...
GROSS: ...What are the implications of that for you?
ROSIN: The sexts are just - they're currency. Like, the girls described to me as oh, it's the guys are, like, collecting baseball cards or Pokémon cards. They don't actually take them that seriously. They're not a huge part of their sex life. It's just something you collect and you tell your boys that you have it. And, you know, it's like cool to have one that nobody else has. It's kind of a social currency more than it is a, you know, a springboard for fantasy, which is kind of surprising. I mean, there's so much free porn out there that these pictures serve a different role. I mean, these guys look at these pictures for five seconds, you know. They are just not that big a deal to them. And so, you know, sending them along is kind of fun. It's like oh, yeah, that's what's going on in school today. We're all sending our pictures to x-person. It seems like a prank. And that's why I think, legally speaking, we should really start making the distinction between the photos themselves and doing things without someone's consent with the photos. So we drill into people's heads that that part is not OK, you know? That if it's part of your sex life or something that's going on as social currency, OK. That's OK. But if it's - if you're sending it out there to a public page, that's really not OK and illegal.
GROSS: So did you talk to girls about how they felt about sexts from boys? Did they want them? Did they care about them? Did they ask for them in the same way that boys ask for ones from girls?
ROSIN: No. (Laughter) Girls - in studies, too - confirm what my reporting says which is they don't - guys don't get a lot of pressure to send sexts. It's not as meaningful. But it is kind of a marker that you have reached a certain point in a relationship or you are about to reach a certain point in a relationship. So it can be foreplay. It can be a kind of intimacy.
Sometimes, interestingly, it's a substitute for sex because kids today are overscheduled and their parents don't let them spend time with guys. They're, you know, we could say overprotected or just protected. And so they don't get to spend a lot of time together. They don't get to, you know, hang out at the corner with their - this guy they're interested in or this girl they're interested in. So sexting late at night, you know, two people with their phones becomes the only form of intimacy available to them. So it's not that the girls described being really turned on or desperate to have a picture of the guy. But it does mean something when the guy sends one.
GROSS: What about parents' reactions? What kind of comments did you get from parents who learned that their children had been sexting?
ROSIN: Well, I would say the average parent just gets upset especially because the police are involved and disciplines the child by taking away their phone or doing something like that, you know, putting some severe limits or restrictions on the phone. Now in my story, I argue that that's actually not the preferable route to go as a parent, partly because it doesn't work.
The kids whose parents shut down their Instagram accounts just start another one or move to another social media platform. And they do it in ways that their parents will never, ever find out. I mean, that's why reporting the story was so difficult because the kids have Instagram names that have nothing to do with their real names and that their parents would never ever find, you know, __queencvb13mexicocity. Literally, that's like what some of the Instagram pages are called. So your peers all know what they are, but you as a parent will never find your kid's Instagram page if your kid doesn't want you to. So that's one problem with just shutting stuff down. Or they'll get a burner phone or borrow a phone from somebody. I mean, they just live online, and they live on their phone. So trying to stop that from happening doesn't seem like a good idea.
Secondly, I think - and I know this is weird and possibly a little scary and awkward - you can see this as an opportunity to figure out what's going on with your child. So if you can - if you can stand it, it seems like the thing to do is ask questions because a sext is not going to tell you very much. If you find a naked picture, it's not going to really tell you whether you should be really alarmed and something scary is going on with your child or if your child is, you know, sexually active and you want to talk to them about that. It probably will tell you that - your kid is involved in sex. But it's not going to tell you if your kid is doing something risky or scary or something you should be really worried about.
GROSS: So I think a lot of parents of teens, especially younger teens, aren't sure whether they should feel empowered to check their children's phones or to even confiscate their children's phones in the evenings when the children are supposed to be doing their homework and then going to bed because I know a lot of parents are concerned that kids can stay up in the middle of night and just be texting or sexting, and they're not getting enough sleep, and they're not doing their schoolwork.
ROSIN: Right. Kids do stay up in the middle of the night and text. That's kind of a known phenomenon that once they finish their homework and all their afterschool activities and they've had dinner and spent time with the family, this is the time when they're all hanging out on their phones. So your choices here are to, you know, take away their phone or limit their evening phone time. Or your choices are to think about why is this happening? You know, why is it that kids have to stay up all night hanging out with their friends? Maybe it's because they don't have other options. Like when I was a teenager, and I bet when you were a teenager, hanging out with your friends is kind of important, right? It's like where you're finding your identity. You're trying to find your place among your peers. So you can't take that away. You can't pretend that you're going to stamp that out of a teenager. But you might want to ease up in other places like on weekends, you know. You might want to let them drive and see their friends or, you know, some of this is just the way that children are being raised today which is that they're so scheduled and they've got so much to do and so many afterschool activities and every minute of their time is, like, watched and kind of monitored and designed for their self-improvement that they don't really have a space to be teenagers.
GROSS: You write about two mothers of girls who sexted and the mothers dealt with it in different ways. Can you describe those two different ways?
ROSIN: Yes. One mother did the common thing which is shut down access to phones. You know, I'm going to take away your phones at night. I'm going to punish you. I'm extremely disappointed. This is breaking my heart. And it caused a lot of trouble between the mother and the daughter, as you can imagine, for a long time.
Another mother was very interesting. I had never met a mother like this. She herself had gotten pregnant at 15. You know, she's nobody's idea of a perfect mother. She has lots of kids with lots of different fathers. But this gave her a kind of life experience. So she has two daughters around the same age. And she treated them both completely differently. She said, look, if one of my daughters ended up on that Instagram page or sent a sext, it's because she wanted to. She is really stubborn and hardheaded, and no boy could convince her to do anything that she didn't want to do. And if some boy tried, he'd really get it. But my other daughter is a total pushover. You know, she's the one who did end up on the Instagram page. You ask her to do anything and she'll do it, you know, even down to, like, fold my laundry even though it's your turn to fold it - she'll always say yes. And so that daughter is the one that she gave a lecture to, you know, don't do with the guys tell you to do just because they ask you. Nothing's going to happen if you say no. Be strong enough to say no. So it was an interesting example in, you know, know your child, don't just look at the sext and be alarmed, know what that sext means in the context of your child, who they are, what their life is like and who the person at the other end receiving it is.
GROSS: If a sext officially violates a child pornography law because it's a nude photograph of an underage girl, are the authorities obliged to prosecute?
ROSIN: Authorities are not technically obliged to prosecute it, but it requires kind of wink-wink on their part. In other words, they just have to let it go. They might have other alternatives. Like in states with sexting laws, they might be able to prosecute it at a different degree. But mostly they can just let it go the way they did in this Louisa County case. I mean, this guy - the sheriff could have prosecuted all these kids, but there's no requirement that he prosecutes the kids. And so he just let it go.
GROSS: What kind of sexting laws are on the books now?
ROSIN: The sexting laws in most states establish a series of penalties for sexts. And so they'll say, you know, for the first one, you might be considered a minor in need of supervision. For the second one, there might be a minor penalty. They basically scale up the penalties for the number of sexts.
But what they do not do is make a distinction between consensual sexts and nonconsensual ones. So if you sent a sext to someone you know for, you know, five years and is your fiance, is your boyfriend or girlfriend, that is treated the same in the law as if, you know, somebody sent out a sext that you didn't want him to send out to 20 people. The law does not make that distinction, which it should.
GROSS: And who's prosecuted? Is it the person who took the photo of themselves and then sent it? Is it the person who received the photo? Is it the person who received a photo and then, without telling the person whose photo it's of, forwarded it to other people?
ROSIN: Well, that's the problem. All those people get prosecuted in different circumstances. You would think by now we'd learn, for example, not to prosecute the girls who sent the photo, which is what happened in 2008 in a sexting case in Pennsylvania and we felt like we all learned our lesson. You know, the sheriff stepped in and said he was going to lecture these girls and call them to court. They're the ones who sent the photo, not - he did not prosecute the guys who forwarded at their photos. So you think oh, you know, it's many years later, we've learned our lesson. But no we have not because the laws are still written that any of those people can be prosecuted. And so you are still coming across cases where you can't believe how the wrong person was prosecuted. I mentioned one in my story where the cops had stepped in. There was an autistic boy, and the girls had convinced him to send a picture of his genitals to them, and he did it. And then they spread it out. And the cops went after the boy. And so you can see that we're still culturally confused about where the harm is and who we want to look at as the victim and who's the perpetrator in these case.
GROSS: What do you think a smart sexting law would read like?
ROSIN: I think a smart sexting law would be clear that the crime here is the sending out, spreading a person's picture without their consent, you know, with the intent to humiliate them or cause them harm. And that the penalties - if we're going to scale up the penalties, we should be for how publicly you did this. So if you sent it out on a million cell phones, that should be one penalty. And if you posted it on a public Instagram page where everybody should access it, that should be, you know, yet a higher penalty. But we should become clear as a society that the crime is the distribution without consent.
GROSS: So at the risk of stating the obvious, anyone who sexts should be prepared for it to be public, right?
ROSIN: Yes. And this is where we can get into the public education campaigns. Yes. That is obviously a danger. And there's nothing you can do to prevent that danger. Let's say you have the most trustworthy boyfriend or girlfriend in the universe. You know, you guys are engaged, you are about to get married. The person puts their phone down - and this is a case that's actually happened - they put their phone down in a locker room in high school, and they go take a shower or get dressed. Somebody else picks up the phone, and as a prank, instantly sends that naked picture to everyone on the contact list, which includes, you know, grandma, grandpa, your mom, you know, everybody on the contact list. So that can happen. Like, once the photo exists, it can be sent out.
GROSS: Well, Hannah Rosin, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
ROSIN: Thank you. This was so much fun.
GROSS: Hannah Rosin's article "Why Kids Sext" is the cover story of the November issue of The Atlantic. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.