Over six years ago I wrote a post where I offered advice to teens who receive a sext. “Sexting” is when someone takes a naked or semi-naked (explicit) picture or video of themselves, usually using their phone, and sends it to someone else. We are mostly concerned with these behaviors as they occur among middle and high school students, but adults are most certainly participating as well. When it comes to students, back then I suggested that if they receive an explicit image of a peer they should delete it immediately. Some people were critical of this recommendation, arguing that if a teen deletes the image it will be more difficult for adults to investigate. That may be true, but it was also the most prudent advice to give students at the time, given the examples we had heard of youth being prosecuted for possession of child pornography. I clarified my position in a post a few days later, acknowledging the criticism and further explaining my perspective.
I’ve been reflecting on this advice lately, as we recently collected fresh data on the prevalence of teen sexting. Not surprisingly, a number of youth still participate in these behaviors. The numbers aren’t nearly as high as is commonly purported in panic-producing headlines, but still significant enough to warrant a conversation with our kids.
In thinking about whether my recommendations would change today compared to six years ago, I’ve concluded that they wouldn’t. Unfortunately, until adults thoughtfully revise outdated child pornography and mandatory reporting laws, encouraging teens to tell an adult about sexting is a terrible idea. It has the potential for significant consequences that may only make things worse. Because educators are mandatory reporters, they are required to contact the police when made aware of any situation that leads them to believe a minor is being abused or exploited (which could include sexting). And the police simply do not have good tools to deal with run-of-the-mill sexting among consenting teens.
Some states have updated their laws, giving law enforcement officials (police and prosecutors) more options when it comes to sexting among minors. For example, Florida law allows for community service or participation in an educational class instead of felony or even misdemeanor charges for a first instance of sexting by minors. In New Jersey, a diversionary program was created specifically for juveniles charged with sexting, with the goal of keeping them out of the justice system completely.
But most states still rely on child pornography laws that include threats of a felony conviction and long-term registration as a sex offender. These archaic laws also mean that students will resist coming forward in situations where they really do need adult assistance (e.g., in cases of bona fide exploitation). As an example, a female student may send an explicit image to a boyfriend who then shares it with his buddies. Now the female student may be reluctant to tell an adult, for fear of being charged with the creation and distribution of child pornography and labeled a sex offender. This may lead to even more exploitation, if boyfriend or someone else demands more pics or behaviors. (By the way, we asked about these behaviors in our latest study, too. So stay tuned for new information on “sextortion.”)
“We need to create a safe opportunity for teens who truly are being exploited to come forward. They shouldn’t fear prosecution or persecution.”
So I continue to advise students who receive a sext to delete the image immediately. They should also tell the person who sent it that they are not interested in those images, especially because of the potential legal ramifications that they generally do already know about. Deleting the image helps to prevent it from ending up in the hands of others (or going viral), which is the main concern with sexting. The overall goal, of course, is to encourage students not to share explicit images in the first place, but also to minimize the distribution when they are shared. Non-parental adults should really only get involved when sexting involves coercion or when images have spread beyond the intended recipient. At that point, however, it may be too late for adults to do anything to help.
We need to create a safe opportunity for teens who truly are being exploited to come forward. They shouldn’t fear prosecution or persecution. They shouldn’t be threatened by well-meaning—but ultimately misguided – adults who lecture them in a school assembly about the potential criminal punishments that could apply to sexting. Touch base with your children (or students) early on so they know what to do should they find themselves in a sexting situation. To help with this, we have more detailed recommendation for teens when it comes to sexting on our website. Check them out and let us know your thoughts.
Image: Garry Knight