Criminal Law

Sexting: Pornography or High Tech Flirting?

Are naked pictures of your teen being sent from person to person or posted on the internet? If your teen has access to a cell phone there's a chance that there are. Three teen girls in Pennsylvania, several boys in their class, a boy in Wisconsin, and other teens all over the country are facing charges of child pornography. They, like many kids, are engaging in sexting.

"Sexting," the latest term in the digital revolution, is the practice of sending erotic images and messages via cell phone or posting the images on the internet. And while this may raise a few eyebrows when done by adults it raises a lot more concern when the ones doing the sexting are kids.

All across the world boys and girls are using the built in cameras in their cell phones to take nude and semi-nude shots of themselves and sending them to boyfriends, friends, or classmates. Some only send the picture to a single person while others send it to dozens. A survey of American teens in January suggested that as many as 1 in 5 teens are engaged in this activity.

Law Enforcement Actions

Some think of it as pornography, others as high tech flirting. Whatever it's called, parents, school officials, police officers, and lawmakers are all trying to figure out what to do about sexting. Given that these images are of minors, some officials are taking a hard line approach and charging minors as sex offenders in an effort to discourage the practice while others are working on outreach and education to help teens understand the dangers of the practice.

Raising even more concern is the fact that those who being prosecuted include both the picture senders and the picture receivers. Another common concern is that kids who act without thinking can end up as registered sex offenders, a stigma that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Pictures are often widely circulated by either intention or accident. A girl might send a racy picture to her boyfriend. If they break-up, he may retaliate by sending the picture to everyone he knows, in or outside the school. It only takes a second to snap and send a picture that could be circulating for the rest of the teen's life.

What Parents Can Do

Some teens engage in the behavior exactly because they can do so in private since parents don't usually check their cell phones. While some dislike the practice of sexting, others embrace it wholeheartedly. Just because your teen doesn't spend a lot of time talking on the phone doesn't mean that they aren't texting, and possibly even sexting, others.

While schools and lawmakers struggle with how to put an end to sexting, parents should keep an eye on their child's cell phone and the pictures sent or received. If your teen acts overly possessive of their phone don't let it go, find out what it is they are doing. Some parents have taken their child to psychologists after discovering evidence of the activity on their phones.

Talk with your teen about the dangers of sexting and the potential legal consequences. If your teen is charged with a crime, seek legal help immediately.

Sexting is a dangerous activity engaged in by an alarming number of teens. Whether it's porn or not will likely be a hotly contested issue for some time, but this risky behavior can result in emotional and legal difficulties for teens in their futures.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Can anything be done to remove a teen's name from a sex offender registry where sexting is involved? Having my teen's name on a registry is not only a serious criminal consequence, but now my neighbors are mad at our family - they're worried that having a registered sex offender in the neighborhood will hurt property values.
  • A teenager edited a photo to make it appear that my child, also a teenager, posed for a nude shot. Then the photo was "sexted" and sent to many students at my child's school. Can we file criminal charges for this, and what about a civil lawsuit against the teen and her parents for damages?
  • While I've taught my children about Internet safety and making smart choices when using computers, cameras and cell phones, our school district has no policy on using camera-equipped phones in school bathrooms and locker rooms, unlike many health clubs. Can I demand such a policy?

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