A new survey on kids in cyberspace finds that 25% of teens have sent nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves to others. Of those who do, it starts as young as 12 years old.
“Sexting” is defined as sending sexually explicit photographs to someone else electronically, often from one cell phone to another. It’s basically a text message that includes a nude or semi-nude photograph. It’s a fairly recent phenomenon and one that more and more teenagers are engaging in – and some are facing prison time for it. Yes, I said face prison time. They might also face a lifetime of being labeled as a sex offender.
Sexting is illegal. It is not specifically mentioned in any law, but it does fall under “Child Pornography”. Under the current child pornography law, sexting can be a felony. Imagine your 14-year-old daughter who has a momentary lapse of reason like most teenagers at some point, takes a semi-nude picture of herself and sends it to her boyfriend. That one act can lead to her being prosecuted for dissemination of child pornography – she is passing along nude or semi-nude photos of a minor, even if the minor is herself. The same is true if her boyfriend forwards the photo to one of his friends – which most do. And if his friend has the photo on his phone, he too may be violating child pornography laws.
Although surveys have claimed that 25% of kids have participated in sexting at some point. It’s probably significantly higher than that (more like 70%), meaning many have not admitted to it. In many instances, the pictures are even seen by more than just the recipient – they are passed along to friends and classmates. Not surprisingly, sexting has drawn a lot of attention, as well as concern, from parents, schools and law enforcement. Lawmakers in more than a dozen states believe that punishing sexting as child pornography is too harsh and are working to create laws specifically for the phenomenon of texting. Under the proposed laws, sexting among teens would be a misdemeanor. Punishment would include court-ordered community service and counseling. Forwarding or disseminating nude photos of someone else may carry a harsher penalty. Lawmakers are probably right – teens that make a one-time stupid mistake shouldn’t face such severe consequences that can destroy the rest of their lives. But most teens don’t know sexting is illegal and many don’t think about or understand the consequences of their actions. Often, parents are unaware of the activity altogether. What is difficult is to construct laws in a way that protect our children from true child predators, yet shield them from the mistakes youth tend to make.
As the new school year begins parents need to let teens know that it’s not only illegal to send such photos, but it’s illegal to request them from someone else. Most importantly, if they receive a sexually explicit photo, they should delete it from their phone right away. Simply having the photo on your phone is a violation of law. And passing it along to others is not only illegal, but it could lead to civil liability for invasion of privacy or defamation – if the child is a minor, they could be arrested for distributed of child pornography. As with drug use, unprotected sex, etc., these conversations are never comfortable, and you hope your child is not participating in the activity – however, the statistics show that your children are likely doing it too. It is better to have open communication than face harsh consequences down the road.
We strongly encourage parents to install monitoring software on home computers and on cell phones that allow parents or a legal guardian to monitor all incoming and outgoing to texts, pictures and emails.