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Much Ado About Sexting

NCJ Number
Date Published
June 2010
15 pages
After defining "sexting," this paper examines its prevalence among youth, identifies its potential harms, considers whether it violates laws, reviews its prevalence in the United States and other countries, and suggests the appropriate societal response to "sexting."
Wikipedia defines "sexting" as "the act of sending sexually explicit messages or photos electronically, primarily between cell phones." Estimates of sexting prevalence from youth surveys vary considerably, suggesting that from 4 to 19 percent of youth have engaged in sexting. The most immediate harm that stems from texting is the humiliation of discovery by parents, authority figures, and unintended recipients. In extreme cases, suicides have occurred. Some cases of sexting have resulted in criminal prosecution, because the transmission of sexually explicit images of underage children constitutes child pornography in the United States. Conviction for a felony or a serious misdemeanor may create obstacles to college admissions and employment. There is no legal definition of sexting, making it a legal gray area. The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to interpret child pornography laws in terms of teen sexting; however, holdings from other Supreme Court and State court cases on child pornography suggest that it is beyond the scope of the first amendment as a form of child abuse that occurs when the photograph of the child is taken. This paper reviews how various State courts have used child pornography laws to prosecute cases of sexting. Civil law remedies could also be used in egregious cases of disseminating provocative photographs through text messaging. This paper advises that law enforcement and prosecution should not be the first response. Parents and educators should be the first to respond to sexting. How parents and educators can best respond to sexting is a matter for further reflection. 65 notes

Date Published: June 1, 2010