Only one letter removed from the innocuous "texting" everyone is familiar with, the word "sexting" has been popping up in various news stories lately. In its various forms, sexting is the transmission of suggestive material via text messages. Of course, there are wide degrees of suggestive material, but today six Pennsylvania teens were charged with child pornography after three girls sent nude or semi-nude cell phone pictures of themselves to three male classmates. Sexting is not rare, either, as a survey conducted by the nonprofit, National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, indicates that 20 percent of teens aged 13-19 have sent or posted nude or semi-nude pictures or video of themselves. Another article discusses a study claiming that sexting is not viewed as a major issue, but the teens who are being charged with child porn and their parents would likely beg to differ.
Because texting allows for the transmission of images, unlike phone conversations, teens under the age of 18 are especially exposed to a number of legal consequences. When images taken on a cell phone unsurprisingly involve the teen, or their friends, and the images involve some form of nudity, the images can automatically be defined by law to constitute child pornography. As a result, the taking, sending, receiving, or distribution of such images can, under the letter of the law, constitute varying degrees of child pornography offenses that are punished harshly. Lawyers will argue that the laws were not written with the intent to pursue underage minors who take pictures of themselves and send them to their underage friends, but for now, the legal risks of sexting for all parties are clear as teens in New York, Alabama, and Wisconsin have been arrested, are facing, or have been convicted, on criminal charges.
Additionally, another serious side effect suffered by teens who send pictures of themselves is the likelihood that their pictures will end up posted all over the internet or distributed in another form. In the rapidly changing universe of a teen's life, it is not unusual for a teen to be in "luv 4ever" one day, and scorned the next. One NBC article related the story of a teen whose risqué pictures ended up being distributed around two or three different schools, which can be devastating to a teen's social life and development.
Parents should not only be aware of the widespread nature of sexting so that they can keep a close eye on inappropriate behavior, but they should be pro-active and make it a point to talk to their teens about the possible legal consequences. Unfortunately, teens often take discussions about legal consequences very lightly until it's too late, so it is equally important for parents to address the very real possibility, and even likelihood, that any embarrassing pictures could end up posted all over the place. Lastly, the survey link below has some great tips to help parents talk to their teens about these and other sex and technology issues.