We know it is not productive to scare kids into not doing it. The idea is that a diversion program could be developed that would help us use research-based strategies that we know are more likely to be effective.
When Massachusetts legislators sought to create a new law around the growing problem of sexting they turned to a nationally recognized expert for advice: Bridgewater State University’s own Dr. Elizabeth Englander.
Sexting occurs when people send explicit pictures of themselves or others via text messages. A psychology professor known for her research on bullying and children’s use of technology, Englander advocated for an educational approach to preventing this practice.
“We know it is not productive to scare kids into not doing it,” said Englander, a psychology professor who is also the founder and executive director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center (MARC) at BSU. “The idea is that a diversion program could be developed that would help us use research-based strategies that we know are more likely to be effective.”
That was the goal of a bill that unanimously passed the Massachusetts House of Representatives. The legislation provides additional tools to protect kids from harmful effects of transmitting explicit images. One provision tasks state officials with developing a diversion program as an alternative to bringing criminal charges. It cites MARC as a resource to be used.
“Dr. Englander has been a great partner on this legislation from the very beginning,” said state Rep. Jeffrey Roy, D-Franklin, a co-sponsor of the bill.
Englander helped draft the measure, spoke at community forums, and testified in support of the legislation.
“Through her research, Dr. Englander also provided needed data and policy recommendations to assist us in addressing the issue of sexting among teens and respond in a thoughtful, just, and measured fashion,” Roy said.
This is not MARC’s first foray into helping shape state legislation. The center created a bullying education curriculum that helps schools comply with an anti-bullying law passed 12 years ago. MARC is now developing sexting education tools.
Current law is insufficient, Englander said, because child pornography is the only criminal punishment for sexting. Those charges are felonies that come with lifetime consequences and are intended for a different issue.
“Massachusetts needed new laws in response to new behavior,” Englander said. “That was really the impetus for all this, to give counselors and police and parents a tool they could use to help a child who got involved in sexting rather than charge them as an adult child pornographer, which was clearly inappropriate.”
The bill also creates a new offense for minors. But most sexting cases would be resolved through a diversion program covering the legal and non-legal consequences of sexting, including how it affects one’s relationships and job prospects.
“Once kids are educated about this, the idea is hopefully they’re going to make better choices,” Englander said.
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