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We define sexting as “sending or receiving sexually explicit or sexually suggestive nude or seminude images or video, usually via a cell phone.”  Most commonly when people use the term “sexting” it is to refer to incidents where minors take pictures of themselves when they are nude or nearly nude and send them to others.  Often the pics are sent to romantic partners but when they are “exposed” to a broader audience it can result in big problems for both the sender and recipient. That’s because, from the perspective of the criminal justice system, teen sexting could fall under existing child pornography statutes and result in long-term criminal consequences.  For example, a teen who takes a nude picture of himself has created child pornography and if he sends it to someone else he has distributed child pornography.  The recipient would be in possession of child pornography.  Thankfully, it appears that most law enforcement officials are using their discretion to handle these incidents in a more productive way than through the formal justice system.

That said, it is important that states update their laws concerning explicit images of minors to account for these new behaviors so that those involved have some consistent guidance about how to proceed. In an effort to better understand how states have been responding, we have been working to catalog all of the state laws on sexting.  As you can see from our summary (updated summer 2016), twenty-five states have passed laws that address minors sending and/or receiving sexually explicit images of other minors and only seven of those actually include the term “sexting” in the text of the law.  Most of the laws prescribe a variety of penalties including informal responses and diversion away from the criminal justice system, but three states (Florida, Nebraska, and Utah) specify circumstances under which the minors involved could be charged with a felony. Three states (Nevada, Rhode Island, and Vermont) explicitly state that minors who engage in sexting shall not be considered sex offenders and will not listed on the sex offender registry. Some states also include provisions for the minor’s record to be expunged when they reach a certain age if they successfully complete some educational programming.

I think we are just at the beginning stages of seeing legislation on sexting.  Many states are likely sitting on the sidelines waiting to see what other states are doing in this regard to figure out what might work best.  Without question this is a complicated issue that requires careful consideration.  We will continue to follow developments in this area and if you know of a law in your state that is not included in this summary, please let us know about it!

6 Comments
  1. kathrynhteacher

    I like that schools are able to discipline students for their out-of-school online speech activity if it is sufficiently connected to the school environment and disrupts the smooth-running of the school day and/or the safety of the school personnel and its students. The progression of the laws from 1969 to the present and how they are still so interconnected is interesting to see. I am glad that the judges who decided the Tinker vs. DesMoines Independent Community School District case back in 1969 gave such a solid ruling. On another note, it is hard to believe that only 17 states have passed laws that are related to sexting! Why don’t we have a national law for that? I do hope that the other states who are “sitting on the sidelines waiting to see what other states are doing in this regard to figure out what might work best” hurry up and get with the program! I have heard from my friends who have daughters that the girls and their friends post these very sexy and racy pictures of themselves on Instagram and think nothing of it! What has this world come to?!?

  2. Steven

    Recently, a student sent a nude picture of himself to a female student. For days he begged her to reciprocate. Finally, he threatened to reveal her deepest secrets if she chose to not send one in return. She did and he showed a bunch of his friends who then sent it to other friends. Within two days it became a huge scandal in our middle school.

    The repercussions for this student were minimal, leaving the faculty very upset with the administration. The main concern was the message we as a school were sending for this behavior. The kid received only two days of in school suspension and was still allowed to go on the annual 8th grade trip.

    I think this could have been a perfect scenario to teach the student body that not only is this behavior intolerable but it is severely punishable. I don’t necessarily know if I feel there should have been criminal charges placed against the 14 year old but I feel as though something more should have been done. I am worried that this issue will continue.

  3. hazel

    I have a kid that took a pic of her self and send it to a boy and some how the whole school has seed it and I don’t know how to handle it the cops said its not much the could do can someone help me

  4. Kelly Murrell

    and your spouse

  5. doodoodoo

    So is it just sending pictures that is illegal?
    Or is texting sexual things illegal as well?

    • Justin W. Patchin

      The images are what will make it automatically criminal (vis-a-vis child pornography laws), though some states criminalize “lewd” text as well.

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