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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah has one of the most comprehensive set of laws in the country surrounding internet safety and minors, a new report shows, including measures addressing online harassment and sexting.
The Beehive State is one of the top 10 states "with the most supportive laws in place to protect children from online threats," according to home security research organization SafeWise. Criteria for the ranking included whether states have laws penalizing online harassment, whether schools discipline cyberbullying both on and off school grounds, and whether states have criminal consequences for sexting, the practice of exchanging sexually explicit materials via text message.
Like many other states, Utah does have legal consequences for online harassment and its schools do discipline cyberbullying, though that doesn’t include off-campus instances, the report shows. The state also has laws in which minors can be charged for sending or possessing an explicit photo. The report awarded Utah an "A" grade overall — but as Utah and other states wade into new legal territory as technology and communication evolve, there's some disagreement over how best to keep kids safe online.
There's been a general trend among state legislatures in recent years toward decriminalizing consensual teen sexting, according to Beth Schwanke, executive director of the Institute for Cyber Law, Policy, and Security at the University of Pittsburgh. The Washington Legislature, for example, last month passed a law no longer requiring minors convicted of sending or receiving nude photos to register as sex offenders.
Meanwhile, an increasing number of states, including Utah, are adopting laws to address cyberbullying and online harassment.
"Utah has been fairly progressive in addressing the issues of online harassment and cyberstalking," said Randy Dryer, a law professor at the University of Utah.
The Utah Legislature passed its first law aimed at curbing cyberbullying in 2017, making it illegal to post someone’s name, photo or place of employment online in order to "intimidate, abuse, threaten, harass, frighten or disrupt the electronic communications of another.” If convicted, a cyberbully could face up to a year in jail.
The law was supported by law enforcement and school administrators, but criticized by some who said they worried it could lead to First Amendment violations.
Another law passed by the Legislature, effective this month, makes harassing a minor through a phone, computer or other electronic device a class A misdemeanor for the first offense and a felony for the second offense.
Twenty-five states have some sort of law in place specifically addressing sexting, according to the SafeWise report. But only in six, including Utah, does sexting carry potential felony charges, the report said.
Possible charges for a Utah teenager caught consensually sexting another teenager include dealing in harmful materials to a minor and sexual exploitation of a minor — felonies for adult offenders — though the state allows misdemeanor charges for minors accused of these crimes.
Other states have questioned whether criminal charges are the best way to deter teens from sharing explicit content. Some, such as New Jersey, have created diversionary programs to address underage teens sharing sexual images and videos. If the court so chooses, the teenager can undergo education and counseling while avoiding criminal charges.
While potential legal consequences can serve as a deterrent, perhaps the most effective way to keep kids safe online is to emphasize education and dialogue between children, parents, and doctors, Schwanke said.
"Laws are super valuable and super important around teens and technology," Schwanke said. "But what really matters … is education."
Just as awareness of cyber dangers is growing in state legislatures, Schwanke said she sees awareness growing among parents and children's health care providers.
"I think it's improving," she said. "There are a lot more resources than there were for parents a few years ago on how to have these conversations. But there needs to be more."