Over the last week, my Facebook feed was flooded with controversy posts about the Netflix movie Cuties alongside hashtags of #savethechildren and #cancelnetflix.

For anyone who has not heard of the movie, the story is about an 11-year old girl who becomes a part of a group of girls who eventually participate in a dance competition.  They learn dance moves from watching videos online and end up performing a hyper-sexualized dance routine that horrifies the audience.

Netflix has been widely criticized for sexualizing children in its effort to bring awareness to the exploitation of young girls. 

Among the complaints, critics of the movie argue that the advertising for the movie is too scandalous, the camera angles and shots make the movie soft core child pornography, and that the whole concept of allowing child actors to take on these roles is inappropriate.

Despite its criticisms, and after reflecting on my work with juveniles, however, the movie does convey some very important issues our children are facing every day. 

Despite the mad rush to cancel Netflix and boycott the movie, there are at least 5 important takeaways that parents of young people need to know.

1. Sexting is far more common than you think.

In the movie, Amy, the main character, uses a cell phone to take a picture of her bare vagina and shares it to social media. 

This is far more common than many parents realize.

When parents call our office, they are often shocked to learn their child has taken inappropriate photos of themselves, received images from other teens, and/or shared inappropriate photos through texting and social media platforms. 

They are also shocked to learn that these acts are crimes – and not crimes that are punishable by a slap on the hand.  In Michigan, the crimes that sexting teenagers are charged with are actually the same as manufacturing, receiving, and sharing child pornography. 

These are 4, 7, and 20-year felonies.  Each photo sent, received, or shared is a separate count.  Most of the teenagers we meet with are charged with multiple counts as there is rarely only one photo at issue.

2. Many teenagers accused of sexting are bullied by other kids and just trying to “fit in.”

In Cuties, Amy is seen being bullied at first by the group of girls she ultimately befriends.  One of them in particular is ruthlessly mean to her.  As the movie progresses, Amy’s efforts to impress the girl are clear.  She begins learning the “sexy” dance moves and teaching them to the others.  This gains her acceptance with her so-called-friends.

In order to determine the best defense and mitigation strategy, we routinely have our young clients evaluated by mental health professionals to determine a course of action catered to each individual client.

Most of our teenage clients are not sexual predators.  They are teenagers who have made bad choices and without realizing it, committed serious crimes. 

One common finding in the evaluations is clear: often our clients are the victims of bullying and just want to fit in with the peers around them.  This is a sad reality and one that parents often do not realize can lead to major consequences.

3. Young people are seeing far more on social media and online than parents realize.

In the movie, Amy and her dance group use cell phones to find videos of strippers they mimic and copy.  This ultimately leads them to make the dance routine that culminates in them dry humping the floor.

Many parents do not realize the pervasiveness among our clients of looking at, and downloading pornography, in addition to sexting.  This is particularly true with the availability of cell phones and devices that make it easy to find and free to access.

Most of the parents of our clients believe their teenagers are too old for parental controls like the kind parents of a 5-year-old may put on technology.  While this may be true, the lack of monitoring fosters too easy of an environment to create trouble.

4. Negative consequences do not deter sexting until it is too late.

In many of our cases, our clients have suffered negative consequences yet keep making poor choices. 

For example, in cases where there is already police involvement, some of our juvenile clients have been caught continuing to sext – and as a result, charged with more offenses.  It is clear – negative consequences do not necessarily deter the behavior. 

It is important to get to the bottom of the issue and figure out why it’s happening.  That is a key part to successfully helping the young people we represent.

5. Bad friends can easily take down good kids.

We all know there are “bad apples” out there – kids we hope our children never meet.  In Cuties, Amy is drawn right to this type of group of girls – ones who defy authority at school, talk about topics far beyond their years, and encourage each other to push the limits in every way. 

As the mother of four children ages 6 to 11, my husband and I have run across these types of peers that we hope our children avoid.

It is important to know that these kinds of friends can easily take down otherwise good kids.  Since it is illegal, for example, to receive sexted photographs, even the kids who do not make or send them oftentimes receive them on their phones through messages, texts, and social media.  Even when these photos are deleted, they are never really deleted. 

We represent a number of teenagers who get in trouble for acts that parents would not expect to cause so much trouble – for example, being on a group chat where photos are exchanged.  This is critical information because our teenagers do not have to be the “bad” kid in comparison to their friends, but can just as easily wind up in serious trouble.

While Cuties no doubt has its criticisms, it does highlight important issues that parents may not realize our children face every day.  It is undoubtedly a different world than even ten years ago before smart phones existed.

Our office is always willing to answer questions from parents or young people about navigating legal issues in these difficult times.  While we do represent a number of juveniles caught up in sexting cases, we hope this area of practice will slow down because the trend slows down.  This will only happen through awareness and information.

Author Smith Blythe

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Michigan Criminal Sexual conduct Lawyer