Sexting and teens. Nearly every week, the headlines reflect the attempt of citizens, educators, and lawmakers to tackle the question: What should the punishment be for teens caught sexting?
In most states, officials may prosecute anyone, regardless of age, who creates, distributes or possesses an image of a minor engaged in sexual acts under that state’s pornography laws. And, if convicted, that person is required to register as a sex offender. Currently, laws vary state to state (check your state’s laws here).
However, as sexting becomes more socially widespread among teens — some even calling it an “epidemic,” — many consider the felony charge of trafficking child pornography too stiff a penalty for minors, especially in cases where sexting is consensual.
Such was the case in Illinois when officials charged two students with possession of child pornography following a sexting scandal at a suburban middle school. More recently, a group of Kentucky teens was accused of circulating more than 140 nude photos of teens in their peer group.
Chances are the middle and high school students charged weren’t thinking about prison time when they hit “send” on their phones and became part of a crime. States across the country such as Colorado and Tennessee whose lawmakers want sexting offenses to be treated as misdemeanors or infractions such as skipping school or violating curfew.
The dialogue around the issue is robust for sure because sexting can be wanted or unwanted. Concerns about sex trafficking, cyberbullying, and privacy rights of minors face off against passionate citizen groups and lawmakers who claim that that the sexting lesson needs to happen but not through the criminal justice system.
While each state wrestles how to reshape its laws, the conversation around the dinner table for families is more important than ever. Don’t wait for something to happen to bring up sexting. Talk candidly and firmly to your kids about the proper and legal use of their cell phones.
Sexting: Family Talking Points
1. Nothing is private. Nothing. Once you send an intimate photo, you’ve lost control over it, and you never know where it’s going to end up. Just. Don’t. Do. It.
2. It’s a felony. Underaged sexting — as common and acceptable as teens claim it to be — is still a crime. Felony charges and sex offender status for possessing and sharing photos of underaged males or females is still a possibility.
3. Responsibility. With great power comes great responsibility. Poor decisions on social media can have broad, far-reaching consequences as comedian Kathy Griffin recently reminded us all. Kids who own mobile phones must exhibit responsible behavior and understand the consequences of misusing technology. Encourage kids to delete any inappropriate photos they receive immediately.
4. Revenge is real. When feelings of rejection, betrayal, or jealousy mix with teen angst and technology, the results can be devastating. Revenge porn — when someone shares once private photos out of anger — is a very real consequence of sexting. Talk to kids about the risks and that even the most trusted relationships can take unexpected turns. The best practice: Never sext. Ever.
5. Empathize. Kids sext for different reasons; some to show off or joke around, others to win someone’s affection or to prove their commitment. Listen to your child and empathize with the social pressure he or she faces daily. Let your child know that everyone wants to be accepted, but real friends don’t require intimate photos to build a relationship. Discuss different ways to respond to that pressure that will help them steer clear of sexting.
6. Extend grace. Everyone makes mistakes — it’s part of growing up. Let your kids know that if they’ve been on either side of the sexting equation, they can make it right by deleting all photos and committing to never doing it again. Familiarize yourself with signs your teen may be sexting and the texting slang used to do it. Encourage your child to find his or her worth outside of what peers may be doing.
7. Think big picture. It’s easy for kids to get caught up in the moment and make impulsive decisions. Talk to kids about the big picture. Ask: What if one hasty decision came back to haunt you years down the road? What if one decision cost you a scholarship, a relationship, or even a job? What if the person you send a photo to loses his or her phone? What if a friend, parent, or teacher scrolls through your friend’s phone and sees the intimate picture? What if a “trusted” friend or relationship changes? Watch the sexting and cyberbullying video, “Exposed” and discuss.