Sexting refers to the sharing of inappropriate or sexually explicit content via text messaging. Importantly, sexting does not require a smartphone. Any phone with a camera can be used to generate illicit content, and any phone with the ability to display a picture can be used to view material sent via text message. Most feature phones today support both of these capabilities.
The Associated Press reported in December 2009 that more than one-in-four teenagers have sexted in some form.
The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, a non-profit organization, attempted to quantify just how widespread the practice was in a poll of individuals aged 13-26. The numbers were alarming. Twenty percent of teens aged 13-19 admitted to having sent or posted nude or partially nude pictures or video of themselves. Additionally, 39 percent of those surveyed acknowledged sending sexually explicit text messages, emails, or instant messages. Three-quarters of the teens polled understood that sending such messages, pictures, and video could engender negative outcomes, but it clearly was not enough of a deterrent to preclude enough from doing so.6
High school and junior high school students engage in most sexting, although the usage has spread across older age groups. In fact there are reports of an emergent epidemic of sexting among retired senior citizens. (I wish I was making that up.)
The most common reason cited for sexting include:
- To be “fun or flirtatious” (66%)
- As a “sexy present” from a teen girl to her boyfriend (52%)
- In response to having received it (44%)
- As a joke (40%)7
Peer groups figure large in the spread of sexting. 51% of teen girls say pressure from a guy is the main reason for sending inappropriate photos, while only 18% of teen boys cited pressure from girls as their reason for doing it.8 Almost 1 in 4 teenagers say they were pressured by friends into sending or posting sexual content.9
In some states, taking nude pictures of a minor legally constitutes child pornography, even when the pictures are taken by minors. In most states, lawmakers and prosecutors understand the difference between teenagers engaging in foolish and inappropriate actions and adults producing and distributing child pornography to other adults. Of course, at the governmental level you can’t just sit back and do nothing.
Those who support criminal prosecution of teens under our existing child pornography laws will no doubt point to the time-honored rationale of deterrence as the foundation for moving forward on such grounds. Some prosecutors may also initially charge the teens with the heaviest, most punitive of charges to frighten them and not have the real intent to go forward with them.10
In some cases, state prosecutors have had no choice under existing laws but to charge teens under child pornography laws, requiring that those convicted register as sex offenders. Finding the balance has been a challenge as laws catch up with this growing social phenomenon.
Nevertheless, states are enacting their own statutes, trying to carve a middle path between completely decriminalizing sexting on one hand and prosecuting teens as sex offenders on the other. Bills or resolutions have been introduced in at least 20 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and new legislation has been enacted in at least 10 states. Most of those bills aim to lessen the penalties for sexting by treating it as a misdemeanor or other low-level infraction instead of a felony sex offense. In Illinois, for instance, teens who forward or post online racy pictures of their underage classmates would get juvenile court supervision that could result in mandatory counseling or community service.11
Apart from the obviously spiritual and moral issues associated with sexting, the personal cost can be high.
At the same time, some observers say that teens who send explicit photos of themselves are leaving themselves vulnerable to victimization. For example, a recipient could forward the photo to other people or post it online. In one high-profile tragedy, 18-year-old Jessica Logan of Cincinnati committed suicide after a photo she sent to her boyfriend was more widely circulated.12
Such tragic stories underscore the importance of parental relationship and involvement in the online behaviors of our children.