THE "LEGAL EPIDEMIOLOGY" OF THE TEEN SEXTING EPIDEMIC: HOW THE MEDIA INFLUENCED A LEGISLATIVE OUTBREAK

Kimberlianne Podlas

Abstract


This article considers the media‟s impact on the “legal epidemiology” of the teen sexting epidemic.  Here, “teen sexting epidemic” refers to two things: (1) the belief that sext messaging by teens is rampant and spreading, hence, is an epidemic; and (2) the process by which a piece of information spreads like a virus, came to be understood as a pathogen infecting teens, resulted in a rash of child pornography prosecutions, and erupted into an outbreak of sexting legislation, hence, the epidemiology of the legal issue.  This article argues that the media was both a carrier of this virus, in that it communicated the information and conceptual frameworks that formed the public‟s knowledge base of sexting and its legal implications, and a host environment in which forces interacted and transformed.  To better understand the media‟s role, this article includes an empirical analysis of the past five years of media coverage of teen sexting, and identifying both its temporal and topical trends.  With this quantitative and qualitative base, the article then analyzes the relationship between coverage and the progression of the teen sexting epidemic from a social issue to a legal issue and, ultimately, to an outbreak of “curative” legislation.  In doing so, it focuses on the child pornography prosecutions of teen sexters, the media‟s criticism of that course of action, the reincarnated stories of sext-related suicides, and the nation‟s recent sext-related legislation.

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5195/tlp.2012.91

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