In November of 2012, a then-16-year-old sent a friend a message with a nude photo of her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend; she was later charged with possessing and distributing child pornography, and uttering threats. Two years later, she was found guilty on all counts, becoming the first child to be convicted under Canada’s child porn laws. The teen, who cannot be named because she was under 18 at the time of the offence, now has until March to decide whether she will accept her sentencing as a sex offender, or launch an abuse-of-process motion to the Youth Court in Victoria.
Rebecca, the mother of the 18-year-old in question—her full name cannot be revealed or it will identify her daughter—spoke to Maclean’s about the ordeal and the importance of education when it comes to the uncharted territory of teen sexting and the law.
Q: Take me through what happened when you found out your daughter had been charged.
A: My daughter was living with a friend of mine at the time. I work in Alberta, so both my daughters stayed with her back home. I got a call from my daughter and she was in hysterics. It took me awhile to calm her down to find out what was going on. All of us, myself and my two daughters, were devastated. The police had come to her school and she was brought into the office and taken down to the station. She was eventually charged with possessing and distributing child porn. She had just turned 16 years old. I flew home right away.
She was arrested and charged, fingerprinted, and sent home on bail with conditions. Right from this first call, she told me she had no idea this could happen. She was horrified, terrified. She says if she had known she would have been in any trouble, she would never have sent the image.
Q: What was that like for you?
A: It was beyond confusing. I was just shocked. Possession and distribution of child pornography is for pedophiles. I’m sorry, but in my mind [pedophiles are] adult men who lure kids with candy. That’s what I thought these laws were for. That’s generalizing, I know. But my child is not a sex offender.
Related reading: How safe is teen sexting?
Q: According to media reports, this whole thing started when your daughter’s boyfriend at the time was still in touch with his ex-girlfriend, who had sent him nude photos–sexts–of herself. Your daughter wasn’t happy with this and shared the images with a friend.
A: My daughter’s boyfriend had nude images of his ex-girlfriend on his phone. A photo of the cellphone with the nude photo on it was taken and my daughter sent it in a private message. It wasn’t shared openly or widely. At the time, my daughter and her best friend told each other everything. My daughter’s best friend asked my daughter to send her the image, and she did. In no way was there any sexual intent or sexual gratification, whatever you want to call it. But it was never shared beyond that. They got caught up in something that I would never want to be caught up in. My daughter has always said that if she had known what she was doing was in any way illegal, she would never have done it.
Q: Had your daughter ever been in trouble before this?
A: She had never been in trouble her entire life, never had any negative experience with police at all. She was making the honour roll every year, playing softball, she was into music, playing in the school band, loved photography, computer graphics, all that wonderful stuff. A very typical, outgoing young lady with lots of friends. Just a normal girl.
She just got involved with a boy, her first love, her first boyfriend. And she wanted certain behaviour from his ex-girlfriend to stop. She knows she went about it the wrong way. It was a moment of not understanding the consequences. This whole thing boils down to two teenage girls bantering and bullying each other back and forth. Jealousy over a boy.
Q: You’ve said that the child porn charges don’t make sense in this case. Why do you feel that way?
A: Child porn laws were designed to protect children, not criminalize them. They weren’t meant for this. I’ll never stop being angry about this, and won’t come to terms with it. My daughter is not some evil person. These laws are for evil people.
My daughter was in a situation that she wasn’t emotionally able to deal with, but had there not been the widespread media attention on other cases of sexting and cyberbullying, I don’t think it would have gotten this far, to the extent that my daughter has become a convicted child sex offender. The other teens involved were told that if they testified against my daughter, nothing would happen to them. That’s all in court transcripts. They were brought down to the police station and told that if they testified against her, nothing would happen to them.
I’ve wondered if all of this happened the way it did because of what happened to Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons. Somebody needed to be made an example of. But this situation isn’t similar at all. It wasn’t a case where someone made an image publicly available, there wasn’t massive sharing on the Internet. Forgive me if I’m wrong, but society puts these adult expectations on young ladies to behave a certain way these days. The message is that you can all have sex. We see celebrities and high-profile people sharing nude pictures, we see nudity on TV shows, movies, plastered all over the Internet. But when these things happen in real life, your child could potentially get labeled a pedophile, a criminal.
Q: How would you have liked to have seen this situation handled?
A: When kids are encountering how they should behave online, they need counselling, education and support, not criminal charges. Maybe a liaison police officer who comes into the school to give classes and workshops. Why can’t part of their sex education in school involve discussions around sexting, the negative effects of social media? That is something that should absolutely be put in for future students. I’ve started writing a book about what’s happened to us.
Q: How did the charges and court case impact your daughter’s life and your family?
A: Everything changed. My daughter gained weight. I felt like I was watching her go into a depression. At some level, I’m sure she was. After the charges, she transferred schools. At the new school, the principal and guidance counsellor were very supportive and very understanding. But I could see after almost one month that she was losing her normal life. Part of her bail conditions is that she isn’t allowed to use the Internet without supervision. She’s almost 19 years old and still on those same conditions. And because of that, she hasn’t been able to make or keep friends like she used to. It got to the point where I had to beg her to go school. She didn’t have any relationships with anyone there. She felt out of place.
She went from the honour roll to barely passing. We didn’t even know if she was going to graduate. It was hard watching her slip. You give your child every opportunity to succeed and education is a huge part of that. She was in French immersion. I thought that would give her that extra something to be somebody, to do something with her life. And to watch it all just slowly disappear, her desire to get up in the morning, her desire to go to school, her desire to learn, to be part of life.
Q: It must be very difficult to see that happen to your child.
A: I just loved her. I just told her that I was proud of her no matter what, told her I loved her everyday. That I was proud that she was fighting this because it wasn’t right. I just had to love her even more in spite of everything.
Her dreams not only for her future, for herself, but also for her children, are crushed. My dreams of her as a person have not been crushed. Because, honestly, this has made her even stronger. And maybe, in some weird way, he has been protected from some of the stuff that other young ladies are dealing with online, because she hasn’t had access to online media. Maybe she’s better off than most.
Q: Do you think she will ever get back to her normal life, even when the case and the sentencing are over?
A: Never. She will never be a politician, a judge, a public figure. She used to want to be a lawyer, but no longer. They say youth records are sealed, but they never really are. These days, anyone can find out anything from your past. Somebody in the future will dig this up and put two and two together.
Q: What advice do you have for other parents raising teenagers?
A: As parents, we all want to believe our kids know right from wrong because we’ve taught them right from wrong. We want to believe that our kids get it. But as adults, if we don’t educate ourselves, if the school system is not educating our children on the negative effects of sexting and behaviour online, then that’s a huge part that’s missing. I wasn’t educated about the fact that my daughter could have been charged and convicted. We need to educate parents so that parents can educate their children. They are doing the same things we did as teens and as kids. We just did it by passing notes. And if you wanted to share a picture, you used your parents’ Polaroid camera. Now, nothing is yours when you put it out there.
Q: Advice for teens?
A: Open communication with a parent or an adult to talk to about something you think is wrong. What you put out there stays out there. And not everybody has your best interests at heart.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This story is part of #Project97 — a year-long conversation about sexual assault, abuse and harassment. Visit Project97.ca for more details on this collaborative project by Rogers-owned media outlets, and join us on Twitter with the hashtag #Project97.