Sexting – education, research, and multidisciplinary prevention and response


Earlier this week, I participated in a Summit organized by the National District Attorneys Association and the National Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse with a variety of professionals in the child protection arena. While other attendees focused in on the problem of child sex trafficking, my small group concentrated on the phenomenon of sexting and self-exploitation.

To begin, none of us really like the term sexting because it’s a buzzword, and drastically overused, and because youth don’t use it in reference to what they are doing. However, we understand that the term has been largely embraced by politicians, legislators, and the mass media, and the traction it has gained will be beneficial in further commanding attention and marshaling resources from those in positions who can help.

We believe sexting refers to “youth rendering themselves vulnerable to emotional, psychological, and physical victimization through the posting and sending of sexually-explicit or sexually-suggestive text, images or video.” I’m pretty sure that covers everything that can be involved.

We don’t necessarily believe that sexting should be referred to as “self-exploitation” as that infers that the victims are fully cognizant, aware, and in support of what they are doing in harming themselves. It places blame on the victim, and renders subjective our perspective of the phenomenon. When youth participate in sexting and then that text, image, or video is circulated outside of its intended recipient (which, incidentally, could also be considered “cyberbullying”), that youth becomes a victim, and no characterization should take away from that.

Sexting is largely an adolescent development issue. This is because of neurophysiological immaturity that youth have, which prevents them from considering long-term ramifications of their actions. Coupled with the disinhibition that cyberspace communication provides, and the geographic distance afforded by computers and cell phones, it’s very easy for youth to act unwisely and participate in this phenomenon. All of this said, we also realize that we (as adults) have a responsibility to step in. I think about the doctrine of in loco parentis, where we (e.g., the government, in the case of the legal professionals who gathered at this summit) have a legal responsibility to take on some of the functions and responsibilities of a parent to protect a child from themselves (i.e., from behavior that can lead to significant victimization). Finally, we must recognize that this issue is a nontrivial problem, and that it requires formal responses in conjunction with the informal attempts that have been made to curtail the problematic behavior.

We have to realize that sexting occurs along a continuum. This ranges first from what my colleague Nancy Willard calls “stupid teen” behavior – which is just part of adolescent courtship rituals and relationships in a time where cell phones, texting, and Picture Mail are practically ubiquitous. Most cases of sexting seem to fall under this category. Then we have problematic boyfriend/girlfriend relationships where there is a measure of abuse or dating violence that takes place. Third, we have sexting that involves intentional exploitation – blackmail, extortion, coercion, deception and trickery. This might, by the way, also be termed “compliant victimization” – which occurs after a period of grooming and the building of trust (forensic pediatrician Dr. Sharon Cooper shared that distinction with me at the Summit). An adult may be involved in these situations as well. Finally, we have what can be termed self-exploitation – which involves youth who brazenly and willingly flaunt and advertise themselves online in a sexual manner. This could range from a youth creating a social networking profile with various sexually suggestive images, videos, or text, to a youth actively prostituting herself in similar environments.

We believe that this can and should be dealt with through multidisciplinary teams that involve law enforcement (school liaison officers, local/state departments, and Internet Crimes Against Children units), child protective services workers and agencies, schools, mental health professionals, medical professionals like pediatricians and nurse practitioners, and social workers. The primary goal of prevention should be addressed through education/awareness efforts to school professionals, other youth-serving professionals, community and after-school organizations, faith-based organizations, NGOs, and of course parents and youth. This multidisciplinary team should be created at the local level, and – if and when done well – it should be shared with, and promoted by, organizations at the state level (such as the Department of Education, Department of Family and Child Services, and similar entities) to the rest of the state. This will then enable other local areas to model their own multidisciplinary team from the initial, pioneering local team. As an eventual consequence, teams will spring up – consisting of a variety of professionals who play a role in stemming the tide of sexting – all around a state, each uniquely positioned and equipped to combat the problem.

Prevention should also occur through formal research of sexting. We need to identify correlative and contributive factors to the problem. We need to empirically determine and assess the range of consequences that befall a victim of sexting. We need to find out – if possible – a demographic and personality profile of those most likely to participate, and whether their background, past, upbringing, and life experiences render them more susceptible than others. Finally, we need formal evaluation studies to uncover best practices in dealing with sexting that can be shared with stakeholders and other constituent organizations.


  1. Hahaa:) this makes me laugh. Alright first of all, politicians, legislators, and the mass media need to be focusing on other issues such as the American Debt. Sexting is harmful but teenagers do it. The fact is that teens' hormones are crazy. these teens find sex amazing. Their hormones are usually giveng them sexual thughts. Yet they seem to be too young to be having sex. So they decide to sext. They usually do this because they are afraid of rejection. But who isn't? Rejection is the main problem in teenagers. we do not like rejection. as teens we need attentioon. Crucial and complemantary. I believe parents should be remembering what THEY were doing at our age. Sexting is a dangerous activity. But it is way better than having wild sex with strangers. You can't get AIDS from texting.

  2. I found a post on facebook from an unknown person to me. When I clicked on their name, no other info came up ie friends,profile. It has a photo and the post says they prefer to kill people and went on to say other things. I want to know how to notify someone to at least research who this person is and if it is a real threat and if they are a danger and may need to be locked up for at least some evaluation. On facebook there should be the ability to flag and forward any threats. Please advise. Tx

  3. I have a teenage son, who took his phone to school by mistake and handed the phone over as he was searched entering the school. He was following the rules. Someone looked at the content of his phone and called me about it. The principal called me. I was not aware of the information on his phone. I was told there were sexually explicit pictures of his girlfriend on the phone. Of course I do not approve of this. I actually feel like his rights have been violated, along with his girlfriends. I don't believe she was sending them to this teacher or other person at the school or to be shared with them. I do not think that my son turned his phone over in good faith to have them snoop thru it. How would they feel if the dropped their phone at some public location and who ever found it went snooping thru it????? I think sexting is a bad idea for adolescents, but when rules are being followed by turning in something not allowed at school where is there justification for snooping on someones private phone?????? I do not think that had any reason to search the content on the phone. I know he did not have an explicit picture on the wallpaper because I saw it. So where is their reasonable suspicion??? I feel like his rights have been ignored. I do not believe because they are on school property that they have surrendered there constatutional rights or am I wrong???? They are no longer entitled to constatutional rights because they are on school property is that it??? Did we leave those rights at the door??? Please let me know, because at this point I am pretty upset about both sides of the coin….

  4. On the subject of searching in a high school a phone. A student handed over, I sympathize with the parent and teens and think parent needs to contact a civil liberties attorney in their state. It sounds that they did not have cause to invade contents. I also know from watching the news and shows like Predator about nabbing pedophiles who chat with intentions of hooking up with minors for the purpose of sex, that it is illegal to send photos to minors period. I think that new courses should be incorporated into the school along with local law enforcements on consequences and what the law is. Teens don't understand that. I also do agree that new laws have to catch up with current technologies. Ie. So sad to see stories of teens who commit suicide over a belief system which arises from school bullies. They fear saying something will make it worse with retaliation. Not so if the report is filed at school. They then should be required to notify local police with all names. The law should be a felony conviction consequence if any incidents occur after notification. All parents should write to their local senators on this legislation being a priority. Teens are vulnerable and many have zero guidance or role models at home. That is why anything in the educational system which can protect while educating will be a true lifeline for the teen

  5. Adolescents are flourished with powerful learning tool, a cell phone. Most parents give their kid a phone mostly for emergencies and being able to check to make sure their kids are ok. However, looking at certain issues it seems like some laws that were meant to protect kids today are some of the laws that are currently hurting them today. Now there is the cell phone which most parents think is meant to help with the safety of their kids are now an issue of being a part of the problem.

    Knowing ones rights is not just enough when dealing with sexting especially when the message is sent for the purpose of sexual gratification. The explicit use of sexting when dealing with privacy issues can at some point infringe upon adolescent privacy. But where in essences do adolescent rights come into account? Should any individual young or old be expected to receive any reasonable amount of privacy? Is sexting such a public safety concern serious enough to alarm law enforcement and to destroy lives of adolescents by placing them on sex offender registry lists? Well even a grown up arrested for drugs has the opportunity to go through some sort of treatment program. Why there is not a program in place for adolescents who are caught sexting? And when dealing with adolescent’s society always deem adolescents as being unable to make legal decision for themselves if they are under 18 years old. Not to mention the vast majority of adolescent’s sexting today if each one of them is caught and is prosecuted in some sort of way just think about what the future will hold for our youths. Youths are suppose to be our future therefore a much better salutation needs to be put in place for youths sexting. After all they are at the stage where they are becoming familiars with their sexuality and wanting to explore them in many different ways.

  6. I believe sexting can be a crime. According to an article I read titled "Sexting", "attention has been given to cases of criminal prosecution against teens who engage in sexting, with charges including: disorderly conduct, illegal use of a minor in nudity‐oriented material, and felony sexual abuse of children…, criminal use of a communications facility, or open lewdness." In an article I read from Komo News, teens where almost charged with possession of pornography of a juvenile, would have had to spend a month in juvenile jail, and would be registered as sex offenders. However, the judge went easy on them and gave them orders “to apologize to the victim, attend an awareness program on sexting, and work with their school to create an awareness program about sexting” (link defunct). But if you really think about it, the initial act of taking a picture of yourself as a juvenile in the nude would be essentially a crime in itself. Let me explain. According to the State of Florida, statute about pornography, “Possessing, distributing, transmitting and manufacturing child pornography are all illegal in the State of Florida and are third degree felonies covered under Florida Statutes 847.0135, 847.0138 and 827.071” (link defunct). With this being said, the young girl in possession of a nude picture of herself and then distributing it to her boyfriend has just committed a felony and should also be punished for her actions. (Even though I believe it is punishment enough to have a nude picture of you to have floating around cyberspace for all to see).

  7. Sexting is an increasingly popular and daunting issue with today’s youth, due to the availability of technology. It is usually nude or partially nude pictures being sent via cell phone but computers and social networking sites can also be utilized. Often the pictures are meant for a romantic interest, but during formative years, those are generally fleeting and photos have a tendency to travel… In the article, They Know What Boys Want 14-year old Cristal posts suggestive pictures of herself on Facebook. She finds it endearing that her boyfriend is threatened by them and the comments received because of them, but refuses to take them down. She sees his discomfort as simple jealousy and although it might be, he has the right idea… Author Alex Morris uncovers startling information about the availability of internet pornography to teens and the juvenile giggles that accompany some of their answers speak volumes about what they do and do not understand about sex and their own bodies. The same lack of understanding applies to extremely young, over-sexualized dancers who just dance the routines they are taught, unaware of how their actions and outfits translate to the masses.

  8. A new technological trend among teens, sexting has been associated with disturbing problems. There is a current Texas law that addresses sexting and possessing or trafficking child pornography. In response to the issues that arose from teens sexting, Texas legislators are adding wording to Senate Bill 407. This added wording will hold both teens and their parents accountable if teens text nude or explicit images of themselves. Judges can order the minors and parents to an education program that addresses the social and criminal aspects of sexting and sending explicit images. One underlining goal of this provision is a deterrent message to parents encouraging them to pay attention to the new technology.

    Currently, minors can face a third-degree felony count if convicted. Because the current law carries a penalty of 2-10 years in prison and a fin up to $10,000 changes to the bill will remedy that. In November 2010, Attorney General Greg Abbott and state Sen. Kirk Watson have lobbied for a provision to the existing law so that teens would face a misdemeanor charge instead of a felony count. The bill will also allow teens to have a sexting conviction expunged from their record. Additionally, school districts would have to provide education for students on the dangers of sexting. Overall, changes to this bill are aimed at positively reacting the issue of sexting among teens. As most states have a sexting legislation, this is a mere example of how the government is getting involved in combating this issue.

  9. Sexting I think now-a-days is the norm for most. Your in a relationship with someone and you might feel obligated to show your significant other a nude picture here and there and at the time you may think its a good idea. However, what happens when or if you break up and the parting was bitter? In these cases sexting can pose a problem. I had a friend of mines who actually was a victim of sexting and I seen the negative impact it had on her. She sent some nude pictures to her boyfriend who showed his teammates and other males her nude pictures. She was not only mad it brought a great deal of shame to her and ultimately she began to be depressed. Imagine this happening to someone in middle school and high school. How damaging this can be for a young girl who thinks she's being a good girlfriend to her mate. I know I have read somewhere that kids are being labeled as sex offenders for sexting at a very young age. The laws are begining to be very harsh and I think today's teens need to be aware of damaging effects sexting can pose.

  10. Sexting is an issue that is out of hand today. Sexting is defined as “the sending or receiving of sexually‐explicit or sexually‐suggestive images or video via a cell phone” in Hinduja’s article. It seems that every young girl has at least 2 pictures of her posing sexy, semi-naked, or provocative on Facebook or any social network. Girls are the first ones to provoke a boy by uploading their inappropriate pictures; as a result they get attention from them and bust their self-esteem. I have people in my Facebook, all of them girls, posing with boy shorts and flashy bras with a caption of “ready to go to sleep, sweet dreams people ;)” and comments like “some dirty little things I’m gonna do to you in my dreams”, “wanna sleep with me?, I have room in my bed”, “HOT MAMMA”, “let’s have a slumber party”. If girls don’t respect themselves neither would boys, and by uploading this kind of picture they are lowering their reputation.

    • yeah, I notice that too, half of the women I seen on facebook are half naked. I’m not friends with them, but some of my friends are. They wear that to get attention from men to boost their self esteem, they feel that what makes them attractive by wearing half naked clothes

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