Charges in 'sexting' ring a quandary for Nova Scotia town — and for experts

A Bridgewater, N.S. sign is seen on Saturday, July 30, 2016. Six male high school students, attending Bridgewater Junior Senior High School, are facing charges following an investigation into complaints that intimate images of at least 20 young female students were shared online without their consent.

BRIDGEWATER, N.S. - When 14-year-old Jillian speaks of her generation's widespread practice of sending naked selfies to others, she describes both its inherent dangers — and what for some is an irresistible allure.

The dark-haired girl in a ball cap, meeting with friends at a Bridgewater youth centre, says she doesn't send "nudes" herself, but adds that some girls see it as a sign of self confidence in their bodies — and a normal part of a close relationship.

When the image is passed along without permission for others to ogle, however, it crosses the line of what's acceptable and "it's difficult to trust again," she says.

"I think it's a good thing that they're bringing the cops into this," she says.

On Wednesday, six local teenaged boys are scheduled to appear in Bridgewater youth court, in one of the country's early tests of a new law designed to combat illegal sharing of images.

Images of more than 20 teenaged girls were circulated after allegedly being shared without consent in a Dropbox account.

Two 18-year-olds and four 15-year-olds whose identities are protected under the Youth Criminal Justice Act have been charged with both distributing intimate images without consent and possession and distribution of child pornography, following a year-long investigation.

Police Chief John Collyer says it's an important test of the new section 162(1) criminal code provision on intimate images, which allows prosecutions for sharing a wider range of images, including breasts, than traditional child porn laws.

That law was brought in amidst the searing memories in Nova Scotia of the death of Rehtaeh Parsons.

The 17-year-old attempted suicide and was taken off life support after a digital photo of what her family says was a sexual assault was circulated among students at her school in Cole Harbour, N.S.

"From a policing perspective, we needed some legislation," said Collyer in an interview. "Whether it's hit the right balance or not in terms of severity, and keeping in mind we're dealing with young people ... time will tell."

Since the case broke, terms like sexting and "revenge porn" have become coffee-shop topics in this commercial and industrial centre bisected by the tranquil LaHave River.

The teens at the youth centre describe harsh consequences when smart phone images circulate — and then erupt in high school taunts and cruelty.

"People shout out opinions of how they look ... They say, 'What a slut!' … or they start to criticize their bodies," said Bailey, a 14-year-old who asked not to have her family name used.

Michael Langille, 18, recalls how he sat outside a friend's room after images of the boy's body were passed around.

"I would hear cries," said Langille. "I would sit outside his door just waiting. He was exposed to people he didn't want to be exposed to."

Some experts on teen sexting view the Bridgewater case with concern, saying that solutions other than the heavy hand of the law may be preferable.

McGill University education professor Shaheen Shariff studied the "digitally empowered" generation of kids in a 2013 project that used surveys and focus groups involving 1,088 tweens and teens in two Canadian and two U.S. cities.

Shariff estimates that over half of participants confirmed receiving or sending intimate images, adding that the figures on the prevalence of sexting will vary among studies.

She also said only about half of participants agreed that a girl who sends a boy a sexually explicit photo has the "right to object" to his sharing the photo with others without permission.

"I don't believe that the child porn law ... and Bill C-13 laws that the Harper government brought in are as effective with the kids," she said in an interview.

"We need to work with them, dialogue with them ... on why this kind of total disregard of the privacy of people ... is just not appropriate."

The Montreal university's "Defining the line" project calls for training in schools, police forces and courts to deepen adult knowledge of the central medium of communication among youth.

The young people at the Bridgewater centre agree that more dialogue is needed among young people themselves in classrooms, at home and elsewhere, but don't rule out the need for police involvement when unwanted sharing occurs.

Bailey and Langille described their sense of unease when friends had either shown them a photo of someone else or offered to show them, without permission.

In addition, the pressure to provide the images can also become intense, says Bailey.

"Compliments lead to demands," she said. "He was being discreet and then he suddenly said, 'Just send me nudes.'"

Claire, a former student at Bridgewater High School, says it can create corrosive and widespread distrust among students.

She argues the focus needs to shift from the moralistic condemnation of girls who are sexting — consensually sharing images — to those who choose to misuse the images.

If boys gather and hoard photos as "a show of masculinity," that's the misbehaviour that should be the focus, rather than young women exposing their bodies and sending images to intimate friends, she said.

"I don't think it's an issue of whether you should think twice or not ... You shouldn't have to worry about that," she says during a telephone interview.

Bridgewater Mayor David Walker, a teacher for over two decades before becoming a municipal politician, says the reality is that police and schools in towns across Canada are struggling to find ways to deal with cases where teens are deemed to have crossed a line.

"I've heard arguments, 'Nail them as hard as you can,' and I've heard other arguments, 'No, you've got to work with them.' Maybe it's somewhere in between,'" he said during an interview.

"On the 17th (Wednesday), it becomes very, very real when this gets to court."

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