The phenomenon known as 'sexting' is becoming increasingly common among children and teens, and it's causing serious concern among parents and authorities. It's not just a question of what's morally acceptable or appropriate for a certain age group, the practice of sending nude photos of minors over the internet is illegal – even if they are only being shared among two minors.
What is sexting?
Sexting involves the sharing of sexually suggestive or explicit content over the internet – strictly speaking, sexting can include texts as well as photos or videos, but the most common form of sexting (and the aspect we will mostly be concerned with here) is the sharing of nude photos by minors.
This type of sexting – the sharing of 'nude selfies' – is a disturbingly widespread practice among kids these days. Many parents would be shocked to learn just how popular sexting has become and how casual many children's attitudes are towards it.
Of course, teens are at the age of sexual exploration and perhaps the idea of a nude photo shared between a girlfriend and a boyfriend isn't so bad in itself, but the repercussions can be disastrous in certain cases – especially if the content ends up being shared with the wrong people.
But before we explore the social and legal implications of sexting, let's take a look at some statistics to see just how widespread sexting really is, and who is doing it.
One of every five teens has shared nude or semi-nude photos and/or videos on the internet. That figure includes 22% of teen girls and 18% of teen boys. 11% of teen girls ages 13–16 have also shared this type of content.
39% of teens have shared sexually suggestive texts. Nearly half of teens report having received these types of messages.
One out of three teens say that it's common for a nude or semi-nude photo to be shared with someone other than the intended recipient.
So what are the dangers of sexting?
Teens are surprisingly nonchalant about sexting. To many kids, it seems like harmless fun - in most cases, it probably is. But an alarming number of kids have found themselves compromised by the unauthorized sharing of content that was intended for only one person to see.
Photo sharing apps such as Instagram can instill a false sense of security and anonymity because, in theory, the content shared is temporary and will be deleted automatically. In fact, Instagram images can be easily saved and stored – and can be shared later.
Often, sexting images are used by bullies, blackmailers and those seeking revenge. The spreading of nude photos far and wide can be devastating to a teen's social life and self-image.
But even more threatening are the legal implications…
Is Sexting a Crime?
In most places, there are no specific laws addressing sexting, per se. However, the sharing of nude, semi-nude or sexually suggestive photos of minors is almost universally considered a crime under child pornography laws.
Even the sharing of a nude photo between two minors can be the basis of an arrest and there have been many cases of minors being charged with violations of child pornography laws.
Although most police departments are not interested in arresting or prosecuting minors for sexting offenses, there are some gray areas that make enforcing and knowing when to charge someone with a crime a difficult task for authorities.
In other words, the police don't want to be involved if a teen shares a nude selfie with another teen. But what if the recipient shares the photo with someone else without permission? What if it's shared with hundreds of people?
Authorities will typically step in when, for instance, someone is using a nude photo to blackmail or bully someone, but what if it's just an unauthorized share that happened to go viral?
The laws aren't necessarily up-to-date regarding the new communication technology and the way it is used. The very laws designed to protect children can be used to unnecessarily persecute them, and vice versa – in some respects, the laws may not go far enough, or they simply don't address modern online issues.
There have been numerous cases in which sexting teens have been charged with serious crimes and in some of these the charges seem far too harsh.
For instance, a recent case in North Carolina involved two teens who were charged with felony sexual exploitation of a minor. While investigating another case, police found sexually explicit messages on a teenage male's smartphone which were sent by his girlfriend. Both were charged with a crime – the girl accepted a plea bargain (in this case, apparently she was both victim and perpetrator) and will escape being labeled a sex offender for the rest of her life. The boy may still be convicted of being a sex offender.
The irony in this case is that the two teens are not forbidden by law to actually have sex – they were both 16 at the time and under state law, they can legally copulate. They just can't send explicit texts or photos to each other…
This is an extreme and rather absurd example, but it illustrates the type of legal problems that can arise associated with sexting. The truth is that laws are vague and can be misapplied – they do little to prevent abuses and often are used in the wrong way.
The bottom line is that parents need to be aware of what their kids are doing online. Sexting is just one of the many reasons kids' online activities need to be monitored.
The surest and simplest way to do this is by installing monitoring software on a teen's smartphone or other online devices. A good monitoring app will keep you informed regarding what type of content your child is sharing and viewing.
Teens can't always be trusted to use good judgment, and that includes the sharing of content online. If you don't take an interest in what your child's online habits consist of, you're ignoring a source of potential trouble.