Last month there were several major news stories in New Jersey regarding teen sexting. In two affluent communities in central New Jersey the school administration had to determine how to handle the possession of nude images of classmates by both high school and middle school students (http://www.nj.com/somerset/index.ssf/2014/05/bernards_kids_could_face_child_pornography_charges_for_nude_pics_of_classmates_on_phones.html). In New Jersey (and most other states) the possession of nude images of minors is considered to be possession of child pornography, which carries extremely harsh penalties under county, state and federal law.
In each school district, the administrators handled the issue very well, giving parents of the teens a number of days to address the issue, including erasing all illegal images on phones of the students, social media and computers or external drives. Additionally, they provided counseling for all parties involved.
Unfortunately, sexting is neither new nor uncommon. Grand scale issues in school are newsworthy but every day teens are texting other teens sexually explicit images of themselves. By definition, sexting is the sending of nude or suggestive photographs via text messaging, however it can also apply to images sent via chat applications. In most cases, these images are voluntarily taken and sent to the teen’s partner in a relationship. However, there is also a great deal of peer pressure to send images and conform to the social standard even if the sender does not want to participate. Unfortunately, the images sent are often permanently kept by the receiver and it is not common for these images to be shared among friends or, upon breaking up the relationship, for the images to be sent en mass to schoolmates.
What most teens do not know is that by taking, sending or possessing these pictures they are violating laws relating to production of child pornography, dissemination of child pornography and possession of child pornography.
In the state of Pennsylvania (where my offices are located), a teen sexting law was enacted in 2012. This law criminalizes the transmission of sexually explicit images to minors. Under state law 18 Pa. Con. Stat. §§ 5702, 6321, it is a crime for a person under the age of 18 (a minor) to:
– Transmit, distribute or disseminate (share) an electronic communication (such as a text message or instant message) containing a nude image of him or herself or any other person age 12 or older, but younger than 18, or
– Possess a nude image of another person between ages 12 and 17.
If prosecuted in the state of Pennsylvania, the case is most often handled through the juvenile court system. Possession of the image of another person or sharing one’s own image is a summary offense that is normally handled with fines and counseling. If the teen shares the image of another teen, this is a third degree misdemeanor that carries a jail sentence of up to one year. If the teen is found to be sharing the nude image of another teen without them knowing or with the intent to harass the teen in the image, they can be convicted of a second degree misdemeanor and up to two years in jail. At the discretion of the legal system, the teens possessing these images can also be charged with possession of child pornography. This is a charge with much more serious legal consequences including becoming a registered sex offender. (http://www.criminaldefenselawyer.com/resources/teen-sexting-pennsylvania.htm)
Though sexting among teens is common and a cultural norm, the knowledge of the legal consequences is not. A research study recently published in the journal Sexuality Research and Social Policy by a team at DrexelUniversity looked at the awareness of youth of the legal consequences of texting. The study found that more than 50% of the students they surveyed had engaged in sexually explicit messaging both with and without pictures. Many of the survey participants had no awareness of the legal ramifications for their past behavior.
A key finding from the study is that the authors found a relationship between awareness of legal consequences for sexting and engagement in sexting behavior. Those youth who were aware of the potential legal consequences for sending nude images engaged in the behavior significantly less than their counterparts who were not aware of the potential legal consequences. Additionally, those who did not know about the legal consequences stated that if they had the knowledge it might have changed their behavior and deterred them from sexting.
In my opinion, this is one of the most important findings from this study. Teens who know about the possible legal consequences of sexting might engage in the behavior less frequently. Though this data was based on the thoughts of the subjects rather than hard outcome data, it is still promising. On a grander level, teens need to be educated about sexting. Though it may be a normal thing to do for this generation, it is also illegal and can carry harsh long term consequences. On a personal or family to family level, this means that parents have to talk to their teens about the behavior. Though it might be hard to bring up the subject cold, the consequences of not doing so can last a lifetime. When sexting is in the headlines, it is an easy segue for parents to bring up the topic with their children. Additionally, this is not just a “teen” topic as evidenced by the NJ middle school recently embroiled as well as the fact that the law states ages from 12 years old upward.
Study Reference: Strohmaier, H., Murphy, M. & DeMatteo, D. Youth Sexting: Prevalence Rates, Driving Motivations, and the Deterrent Effect of Legal Consquences. Sexuality Research and Social Policy, 2014.