When most people hear the words “kiddie porn,” they’re thinking of innocent children being exploited and damaged for life by villainous adults. That’s the legal theory behind laws against child pornography: protecting the victims against exploitation.

What is happening more and more is that these same laws are being used as a tool to punish stupid or irresponsible teenagers who have exploited and harmed no one, but merely photographed or filmed themselves having sex.

Four Chicago-area teenagers faces felony child-pornography charges after uploading a video of themselves having sex to Twitter. The three boys and one girl, ages 14-16, are being held in juvenile custody until a court hearing later this month.

Both the sex and the posting of the video were consensual—this is not a rape or “revenge porn” scenario. But under Illinois law (as in many other states), minors who post sexually-oriented images of themselves online or even share them privately with one another can be charged as child pornographers.

It’s an absurd situation (and one Reason writers have railed against before). Maybe things like tweeting your orgy video or texting nude photos to classmates aren’t the wisest decisions a teen can make, but these are matters that parents or perhaps school administrators should address, not the criminal justice system. Who benefits from branding these teens sex predators for life because they dared to explore their sexuality?

According to the Chief of Police, they are being targeted for prosecution in order to “send a message”:

“The child pornography offense that was charged is in place for a reason, because we don’t want to accept that type of behavior as a society,” [Joliet Police Chief Brian] Benton said. “It’s making a strong statement, and I think it’s important to do so, to send a message to others that kids shouldn’t be involved in this type of behavior, and hopefully this will serve as a deterrent.”

Being registered as a sex offender for life is a deterrent, all right. A deterrent against ever having a normal life. These kids committed a crime against no one, and harmed no one except arguably themselves. They are not in the class of predatory criminals these laws were intended to punish, and it is a mockery of justice to pretend that the laws were passed to ruin the lives of kids for behaving in less than a mature manner. (Of course, if they had done the same as adults, they would face no legal consequences at all.)

What also fascinates me about this whole issue is when the increasing ubiquity of cameras are factored in. Whether they are cell phone cameras, web cameras, nanny cameras, surveillance cameras, or baby sitting cameras, they are cheap, easy to install, and it is a social norm for your average middle class family to have several cameras in their home.

So I have a hypothetical question which might be fun for a law school exam. Suppose a couple regularly employs a local teenager to babysit their kids while they’re out on the town. Suppose further than one of their kids tells them that the babysitter likes to have her boyfriend over, and that when he comes over the kids have seen them play what the little kids call “funny games.” Wanting to know exactly what is going on before confronting the babysitter and/or her parents, Dad installs a hidden surveillance camera and sets it up to ascertain whether the babysitter and her boyfriend are having sex. The parents come home, review the “evidence,” and BINGO! The two of them are caught in flagrante delicto, with the boyfriend on film giving it to her right on the couch. Bear in mind that the boyfriend and girlfriend are 15 years old, well below the age of consent, and well below the kiddie porn threshold.

Did Dad make kiddie porn? He set up the camera intending to catch them having sex, and it worked. And even if he didn’t intentionally make kiddie porn, doesn’t he now possess it?

It would not surprise me if the parents could be sent to prison for a long, long time.