Kids who send sexual pictures of themselves are taking personal and legal risks but parents and authorities need to react calmly.
Legal consequences aside, "sexting" is a dumb thing to do, especially for kids. Sexting is when you take a picture of yourself, typically from a cell phone, and send it to someone else. Even if you are comfortable with the person receiving the image, you never know for sure where else it might land. Digital images are easy to copy and forward and even if you trust your friend, it can be accidentally forwarded or seen by others with access to your friend's phone or computer. Friends sometimes lack discretion or become ex-friends so it's not uncommon for such images to find their way to other people's cell phones and inboxes and even web pages where they can be seen anyone, copied, searched for and redistributed, perhaps forever.
But for minors, there's yet another risk: potential serious legal consequences. Creating, transmitting and even possessing a nude, semi-nude or sexually explicit image of a minor can be considered child pornography and it can be prosecuted as a state or federal felony and can even lead to having to register as a sex offender.
Crazy as it seems, some prosecutors have gone after kids for taking and sending pictures of themselves. There was a case in Florida a couple of years ago where a teenage boy and girl photographed themselves nude and engaged in "unspecified sexual behavior." One kid sent the picture to the other and somehow the police got involved. They were tried and convicted for production and distribution of child porn and the teen who received the image had the additional charge of possession. An appeals court upheld the convictions.
In January of this year, three teenage girls from Pennsylvania were charged for creating child porn and the three boys who received the images were charged for possessing it. And, according to CBS News, a Texas eight grader last October spent a night in jail after a coach found a nude picture on his cell phone, sent by another student.
It's sadly ironic that the very child porn laws that were written to protect children from being exploited by adults could wind up having a devastating impact on the lives of children who, while acting stupid, have no criminal intent. For some perspective on whether this issue is or isn't overblown, see Anne Collier's piece in NetFamily News
So why do teens do this? It depends of course, but the mother of a Seattle teenager whose naked picture arrived on "the cell phone of another student — and then the cell phone of a football player, then the football team, then the senior class," told National Public Radio that "they were just being silly girls." In a radio interview, the mom said that her daughter and a friend "were going to take a shower and they put the camera phone up to the mirror and took a picture of themselves, a side profile naked." The woman's daughter deleted the photo but the friend didn't. That's the problem with sexting. Once a picture gets into anyone else's hands, it can get into everyone's hands.
It's hard know how prevalent the practice is but if you believe the results of an online survey commissioned by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, about 22% of teenage girls and 18% of boys admit to having "electronically sent, or posted online, nude or semi-nude pictures or video of themselves." I'm not completely confident about the results of this study which was carried out by a market research firm and not subject to academic peer review but I think it's fair to assume that this is happening with a non-trivial number of kids. But even if this survey is completely accurate, the good news is that 80% of teens say they haven't done this.
Perhaps more interesting than the survey's overall number is the breakdown of why teens take and send these pictures. Of the 20% who reportedly sent such pictures, 71% of girls and 67% of boys say they sent or posted content to a boyfriend or girlfriend while 21% of the girls and 39% of the boys say sent it to someone they wanted to date.
And, as you might expect, peer pressure plays a role. Of those who sent such content, 51% of teen girls cited "pressure from a guy" compared to only 18% of teen boys who felt pressure from girls. Just over half (52%) of the girls said they sent pictures "as a sexy present" for their boyfriend. 66% of girls (60% of boys) said they sent images "to be fun and flirtatious."
While the sexting issue is troubling, I think it's important for us all to take a deep breath and refrain from panicking, passing new laws or resorting to using child pornography laws that were designed to protect children from exploitation by adults.
Based on how past internet safety messages have caused teens to modify behaviors, I suspect that incidences' of sexting will diminish over time. Kids aren’t stupid and, faced with facts, most almost always wise-up. We know from other research that kids who get in trouble online are the same kids who get in trouble offline so when we know of teens who are repeatedly sexting or doing other stupid or risky things online, it's important to intervene early and often.
As per most teens -- the best thing for a parent to do is to have a non-confrontational conversation -- perhaps over dinner -- to ask your kids if they've heard about sexting and what they think about it. You might not get a straight answer but you'll open up a two-way dialog which can go a long way towards helping your kids understand how to minimize legal, social and reputation risks while still testing their limits.
Boy, am I glad the Internet and camera phones weren't around when I was a kid.