A sex scandal in the news never fails to catch the public’s attention. When that scandal involves a large group of teenagers accused of trafficking child pornography, the public needs to take notice. Sexting by teens has spread nationwide, which raises a question: is sexting illegal? Are teens involved in sexting placing themselves at a huge risk of a ruined reputation and legal consequences?
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Sexting in the Present
On May 1, 2014, two middle school boys in Chicago were arrested after investigators found sexually explicit videos and pictures on the boy’s cell phones. The two allegedly sent pictures and video of a classmate performing sexual acts to five other students from the same school, who continued spreading the materials, via cell phone, to a large number of students.
Rumors of the pictures and videos reached school officials and parents who called the police to investigate. Once investigators identified the girl as a minor, they placed all three under arrest. All three teens face charges of trafficking child pornography.
These young men and women did not learn from the horror stories of similar incidents. Five years ago, other teens were prosecuted for the same reason. So, on its own, is sexting illegal?
Setting an Example for the Future
In February 2009, Fox News reported the arrest of several teenagers in Pennsylvania and Ohio for possessing and distributing child pornography. Investigators arrested four boys and three girls in Chicago and a 15-year old girl in Ohio. Each faced felony charges, which could label them as sex offenders for a lifetime. Too harsh? Maybe.
Defense attorneys and parents found the criminal charges too harsh for young offenders and protested. If convicted, the teens faced up to 20-years in prison and a lifetime with the felony conviction on their records if mobile phone sexting or free email sexting has been recorded.
Prosecutors, at the time, had no other recourse but to charge the minors under the only laws that related to distributing pictures of a nude child. In Chicago, the lead prosecutor hoped the harsh charges and sentences would serve as a warning to other teens about the consequences of sexting.
Of those arrested, all but one pleaded guilty to lesser charges to avoid the publicity of a trial and having to register as a sex offender for a lifetime. These cases made national headlines, which law enforcement officials hoped would stop the sexting trend.
The practice remains a problem in schools and homes across the country as young people forward the pictures and videos to others not aware of the possible repercussions.
Sexting in America: Defined
To create laws appropriate for teenagers caught sending and receiving sexually explicit texts, the word ‘sexting’ needed a clear definition. Years of debate on what activities the term encompassed lead to this definition:
- The sending or receiving of any sexually explicit pictures, videos or texts to another, via cell phone or other mobile devices. The definition has broadened to include materials sent from computers and tablets.
The concept becomes alarming when minors (people under the age of 18) are involved, sending or receiving messages and pictures of a sexual nature that can so easily be used against them later.
Sexting has become commonplace as proven by typing ‘how to sext’ in the Google search bar, which returns more than 3-million results. Sexting tips, ideas, etiquette and examples fill the result pages, which gives kids research material and examples to follow. Sexting videos and pictures now fill a place in modern culture along with the hula-hoop and McDonalds.
The Birth of Sexting
In 2004, the first instance of words used to describe sending sexually explicit messages appeared in two Canadian newspapers, The Globe and Mail. The articles about David Beckham sending sexually explicit messages to his assistant used the term ‘sext messaging’ to describe the naughty messages. The term did not catch on until 2009.
Sexting became a commonly used word after a poll taken by Cosmogirl magazine in late 2008 revealed that 1 in 5 teenagers had sent nude pictures to another using a mobile device. Sexting began trending in the United States as media outlets reported on the good and bad sides of sexting.
More girls send sexually explicit messages than boys. When asked why they sext, most girls said they do it as a joke. Other teenage girls said sexting made them feel sexy and a few said they felt pressured by their boyfriends or peers.
Boys receive more sexually explicit images than girls do, and over half of those receiving these types of messages forward them to others.
Almost 20-percent of high school students between 14 and 18-years old admit to sexting and more than a quarter of college students over 18 years old sext.
A startling number (around 15-percent) of teens admit to sending nude or semi-nude pictures to people they have never met in person. This means that young people are sexting pictures to people they have met online.
Online, an adult can easily pose as another teenager.
Teenagers fail to consider the consequences of their actions and without this foresight, the trend in sexting will continue. Kids need to realize that the person they send the sexually provocative picture to may have ulterior motives.
Across the United States, teenagers caught sexting face prosecution for violation of child pornography laws. In 2009, several states began writing laws that dealt with teenagers who receive or send sexually explicit texts. These new laws separate teenage sexting from laws that punish felony sex offenders.
The thought that sexual predators will find loopholes in sexting laws has stopped some states, like Virginia, from revising current legislation.
State lawmakers, urged by angry parents and frustrated attorneys, push for laws specific to teenage offenders. Several states have made sexting a misdemeanor and the punishment becomes more severe with each offense.
States that have new sexting laws to deal with teenagers include:
Both the sender and receiver face misdemeanor charges if the picture goes to more than one person.
California’s ‘porn revenge’ law makes it illegal to distribute images of a person who agreed to appear in the images, but only if the images stay private. If a minor child appears in the material, the distributor faces up to one year in prison and a $2,000 fine.
Senders and receivers of sexts, ages 13 to 17, face misdemeanor charges if in possession of a nude picture of a person between the ages of 13 and 15
Teens that send or receive texts with nudity face misdemeanor charges for the first two offenses. A third offense brings felony charges. No punishment comes if a teenager reports the sexts and did not ask for them.
The law was not violated, if a teen tries to delete the sext. Otherwise, minors face misdemeanor charges for sending or receiving sext images.
Minors caught sending or receiving indecent texts face counseling or community service.
The first offense brings a fine of up to $250, up to 10 days in jail or two 8-hour days of community service. The second time teens must pay a fine of up to $500, spend up to 30-days in jail or do five 8-hour days of community service. A third offense raises the fine to a maximum of $700, up to 6-months in jail or ten 8-hour days of community service.
Teens who voluntarily send nude images to another teenager have not committed a crime. Forwarding the images to others is a felony.
Minors who send, receive or distribute sexually explicit images face misdemeanor charges and the court declares them “children in need of supervision.”
- New Jersey
The court reviews each case and may require the minor to attend counseling or classes to learn the dangers of sexting.
- New York
The sender and receiver must participate in education reform classes for eight hours.
- North Dakota
Sending and receiving sexts is a misdemeanor when done without written consent from the person in the pictures.
Sexting is a misdemeanor and offenders must attend diversionary programs. Once the program has completed, the offense will not show on his or her permanent record.
- Rhode Island
Minors must attend family court if caught sending, receiving or distributing sexts.
- South Dakota
Minors caught sexting face misdemeanor charge.
Each offense carries misdemeanor charges. With each offense, the punishments become more severe. Teens sentenced to community supervision must complete sexting educational classes to have the charge removed from their records when they reach 17 years old.
Minors will face misdemeanor charges for their first offense and felony charges if caught sexting again.
A judge may deem a minor a delinquent and sentence him or her to juvenile diversion programs for the first offense. Minors caught a second time face prosecution for the sexual exploitation of children.
Is Sexting Illegal?
No federal laws specific to sexting exist for minors. The federal laws protecting children from exploitation do not have special guidelines for minors. Since the federal courts leave the prosecution of minors to the state courts, federal intervention stays in the future.
The states not mentioned above do not yet have specific legislation for sexting. These states either consider each case individually or prosecute minors under the current child pornography laws.
Sexting programs in schools educate teens on the dangers of the practice, but with media coverage of celebrity scandals and twitter posts by their favorite stars bragging of their cyber nudity, the programs have a long way to go.
Sexting disasters have not been exclusive to normal unsuspecting teens, teenage idols like Justin Bieber have had their share of bad publicity for the same reasons. When a celebrity shares nude pictures and videos, it’s twice as likely to get leaked and broadcasted by the media, which consequently sets a bad example for the younger generations.
Bieber posted angry tweets in January when his girlfriend Selena Gomez rejected nude pictures he sent to her via MMS. The media then found the indecent pictures and posted them on the Internet. In another incident, Selena Gomez admitted believing that sexting Justin Bieber keeps their relationship together.
The tabloids have Rihanna sexting everyone from Chris Brown to Colin Farrell and some of these images have shown up on YouTube.
Teenagers, believing nothing can hurt them, follow the examples set by adult celebrities who walk away from scandal more popular than before the pictures and video hit the web.
Other examples of celebrity sextings that went very wrong include:
Weiner, New York’s 9th district congressional representative for 15-years, resigned after sexually explicit images he sent to several women became public.
- Chris Hansen
The National Inquirer exposed the extramarital affair of To Catch a Predator and Hansen admitted he sent sexually explicit photos to his mistress of several months to keep the damaging images out of the spotlight.
- Jesse James
During an affair with Michelle McGee, James sent explicit texts and pictures to her, which she then sold to a magazine.
- Tiger Woods
His well-documented sexual affairs became even more public when one of his mistresses posted sexts he sent her during their relationship on a website she made just to showcase his messages.
Teenagers see these stories on the news and on the web every day. Some learn the lesson and some end up believing it’s normal. Experts believe the constant exposure to sexting numbs the youngsters’ sense of right and wrong. These sexual images flash across their iPhone LCDs every time they sign on to Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat and Twitter.
Miley Cyrus posted an image from a recent concert in England, which shows her emulating oral sex with a giant inflatable phallic-shaped balloon. Miley Cyrus sexting this image for the world to see gives teens the wrong ideas about popularity and responsibility.
Parents, school administrators and law enforcement officers try to find the right programs and words to make teens understand that these behaviors do not work in the real world. Celebrities post sexually explicit images to get free publicity.
In the real world, one nude picture can ruin the chances of getting a job in the future.
What Parents Can Do
Kids mimic the adults around them so if you practice sexting or their older siblings do it, they will do it, as well. If you model behaviors that will influence your child to make the right decisions, your child will make the right decisions.
Begin talking with your child about the dangers of sexting before giving them a cell phone. Explain what sexting means in age appropriate language explaining that texts sent to one person can spread quickly to 10-people. Here are good rules to teach your child about sending messages:
- Write texts and send pictures assuming someone other than the intended receiver will open them.
- Before pressing send, think about the consequences to you if your mother gets the message by mistake. Find the best way to tell your children the materials they message may not go to a friend, but an enemy who will post the images on Facebook or Instagram. Also make sure that they understand, in case of bullying or being blackmailed with pictures they were manipulated into sending, that they can always come to you and report the issue, and that they’ll be safe confiding into you.
Educating Young Children
Parents can help stop the sexting trend by talking to their kids about the dangers and consequences of sending nude images.
Once kids reach their teenage years, getting them to listen becomes hard. Educating kids on the proper use of cellphones and all the features they come with should begin when you give your child their first phone.
The first mobile phone you give you children should:
- Block all calls except calls made to you and your spouse
- Have limited minutes
- Not include texting
Explain the rules your child has to follow in order to keep the cell phone and the punishments for not following the rules. Then, follow through with the punishment if your child breaks the rules.
As your children grow, let them earn more features. This way, you know your child uses the mobile phone safely.
Do not stop with keeping your child safe on just a cell phone, teach them Internet safety, too.
To keep your child safe, monitor phone usage and Internet usage including:
- All the social media sites your child uses
- Any websites they use to post pictures (flcker, Pintrest, Tumblr etc…)
- Regularly reading their text messages
- Viewing the multimedia messages they receive and send
- Reading the email they send and receive
If you begin monitoring these from the beginning, it will become a natural part of your child’s schedule and cause no problems unless something inappropriate happens.
More on What Parents Can Do
You may not know all the features of your child’s cell phone, but you can learn about them. Have your teen teach you all the functions or talk to the person who sold you the phones.
Staying involved in your child’s cyber-life makes a difference in how he or she behaves while online or messaging. You will also notice if your child starts acting differently, like suddenly avoiding family activities or skipping meals to stay on the phone or computer. These indicate problems in school and the sooner you get involved, the better.
Ask your child questions about school, their friends and cyber relationships every day. If they refuse to have the conversation, insist and check their phones and social pages.
Give your child a sense of self-worth by spending time with him or her and taking an active interest in your teenager’s life. Teach them to take responsibility for their actions and the importance of accountability in adult life. Always speak to them in age appropriate terms about sex and the consequences of sexting.
Keeping teenagers safe means taking action at home by setting rules and following through with punishments if the rules are broken. Technology lets you explore the world and learn about anything you wish. It also hides deception and dangers you can help your child avoid. Is sexting illegal? Maybe yes, somehow. But the issue is really far more regarding the lifetime effects of having your most personal pictures abused and your trust broken, so teach your child to tread carefully.