Despite what parents may like to believe, multiple studies, like this one conducted by Drexel University, report that many, if not teenagers, have participated in sexting. While their study reports that most students they interviewed had participated in sexting, they only asked college students from one particular college. Whether or not that one college is indicative of teenagers nationwide, from all walks of life, is uncertain. Still, the facts from other such studies strongly support the claim that many teenagers engage in sexting activity.
This is important because many teenagers don’t appreciate the potential consequences of their behavior. Just as Trisha Prabhu meant regarding cyberbullying when she said, “Teenagers tend to think in the short-term or do not consider all of the relative factors,” the same is true when it comes to sexting.
They don’t see how their actions may affect them in the long term. As a result, sexting can lead legal problems that can last for the rest of their lives.
While many people accept that two people who are a few years apart in age can become involved, the law only goes so far when one of the people involved is a minor. When sexting is involved, this can often cross the boundary between acceptable and criminal behavior, especially when images are included with the messages.
While there are many circumstances where sexting involving minors could cause problems for the people involved, anyone who has reached the age of 18 needs to be especially careful. Imagine the case where a person 18 or older is involved with a minor. Bear in mind that the younger person could be months or even weeks younger than the other person in the relationship.
Now imagine a fight/break-up and the minor reports the adult to the authorities, with evidence of sexting activity. In another scenario, the parents of the juvenile report the adult who is sexting with their minor child. In both cases, the legal adult could be arrested and convicted of child pornography. In my state of Pennsylvania, if found guilty, they could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison and fined as much as $50,000.
The Federal Juvenile Delinquency Act stipulates that minors involved in crimes are handled at the state, not federal level. While that may seem like a benefit, it opens the door to inconsistency in laws across the nation, where each state or even each county, can treat sexting cases very differently.
Consider what happened in Iowa back in 2016. A teenage girl sent pictures of herself to her boyfriend via SnapChat. In one picture, the girl was wearing a sports bra and shorts – nothing racier than what she might have worn on a beach or to a pool party. In the second picture, the girl was topless, but her long hair was covering her breasts, so while it may be considered provocative, it was not indecent. A prosecutor disagreed and is threatening charges against the girl.
According to Philadelphia lawyer, Erik Jensen, parents of minors involved in sexting could face criminal charges under the PROTECT (Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to end the Exploitation of Children Today) ACT of 2003.
It is clear that the laws have not kept pace with technology in this area. As states and local municipalities struggle to keep pace, the gap will never fully close. Legislation is not going to solve this problem and it can cause more problems than it solves. Only through awareness and proper education to our children will we help those that need it the most.
Earlier, I mentioned that the cases might be better off under federal jurisdiction because it would standardize the crime. That’s not to say that making it a federal crime would be ideal, either. In May of this year, a bill passed in the U.S. House of Representatives that would require a mandatory sentence of 15 years for anyone convicted of breaking the law. The wording of the law means that anyone who even asks for such a picture from their boyfriend/girlfriend would need to spend 15 years in prison.
If convicted of sexting related crimes, a teenager’s life can be changed forever. This is one reason why this problem is not going to be solved by the law, but by teaching children to make better choices. Here are some of the repercussions to consider from sexting:
As mentioned above, criminal charges are a very possible outcome. Bear in mind too, the fact that with the type of charges involved, the sentence could end up being served in a maximum security facility, alongside hardened, career criminals. One lapse in judgement could change someone’s life forever. As such, many of the inmates in such facilities may not learn (or even want to learn) the specifics involved. Considering the stories of how those found guilty of crimes against children are treated in prison, this could be a very difficult time for most defendants.
Having to Register with Law Enforcement/Municipality
Upon release from prison, being convicted of a sex-related crime would most likely include having to register on the National Sex Offenders registration. This information, which is publicly available, could cause additional problems – all potentially from sending a racy picture to their romantic partner.
Future Career Ramifications
Once convicted of a felony, any felony, job applicants are often required to inform potential employers of this when applying for a job. Many employers may not even look at the explanation or even the rest of the application. Many municipalities, like Philadelphia, have “banned the box,” which means that their applications don’t ask that question. The idea is to prevent bias from potentially eliminating a good candidate based on something that may not be relevant. They can ask the question later, but the idea is that by that point, they’ve gotten to know the candidate a bit more and be willing to ask for specifics about the felony conviction.
Depending on what kind of career a teenager wants to have, a criminal conviction involving sexting could derail their plans. Any kind of felony record would prevent someone from getting a job in law enforcement and probably eliminate the chance of ever getting any kind of security clearance. And as a convicted sex offender involving minors, a career in education is most likely no longer an option.
Even before a career becomes an issue, even getting into the college of their choice might not be possible. All because of sexting.
Restrictions on where they can Live
More and more municipalities are passing laws to prohibit where convicted sex offenders can live within their communities. While they typically make allowances for people who had been convicted prior to the bill becoming law, it takes away many locations for new offenders, including those convicted on sexting related crimes. Wisconsin, for example, sent a bill to Governor Walker’s desk that would prevent people who committed crimes “against” children from living next door to them.
In 2014, the city of Milwaukee passed a law that prevented violent and repeat sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of any school, park or day care center. As a result, there were only 55 addresses within the city limits where such people could live, reports the Pew Trust.
More than half of the states now have blanket rules restricting the places sex offenders can live. I remember a few years back when a town in nearby New Jersey passed a law that prevented convicted felons from living a certain distance from places where children are likely to be, such as schools, parks, playgrounds, etc. When asked by a reporter if they (the municipality) realized that this covered almost the entire town, virtually preventing them from living anywhere in the town, the mayor simply replied, “that’s the point.”
I am in favor of such laws to protect children from pedophiles and predators. I just don’t believe that an all-encompassing, one size fits all approach is the way to go when it comes to this type of “offense.”
Lastly comes the embarrassment and social stigma that can come about as the result of a conviction based on sexting that classifies the person as a sex-crime offender.
Again, when it comes to more heinous crimes, I’m in agreement with the intent and consequences, but since the National Sex Offender’s registration is open to the public, this can cause serious and erroneous assumptions made by people. Look at the image below, which was taken from a screenshot from my state’s site. I blocked out all of the personal information regarding this person, but I left the type of offense left visible.
Public asses to such information is a good thing, but people must realize that there are different types of crimes being committed and that because of how laws are lagging behind technology, not everyone on such a site is a threat to society. Imagine how you would feel if you found your neighbor, co-worker or even a friend, on the website. Would it change how you felt about the person? Would you ask them about it?
An Ounce of Prevention…
…is worth an immeasurable amount of cure. This is something I’ve said for several years now, especially as it relates to online activity.
Previously, I asked you to consider two scenarios where someone might get into trouble while sexting. The video below represents a third, very common scenario. And once the image is out of someone’s hands, it’s out of their control.
The solution starts with educating our children about what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable behavior online. Include examples like those I’ve shared here about what can happen. Not just hypotheticals, but real world examples specific cases about what has happened to other teens and what might happen to them. If you want some help in finding examples, just enter “#onlinemeetsoffline” into a search engine of social media search window. You’d be amazed at some of the stories you’ll find. It may help your teen realize just how much their online activities can affect them in the “real” world.
About the Author
Joe Yeager is the founder of Safety Net of PA, LLC and has been a cyber safety advocate for several years. He is an adjunct professor at Philadelphia University, where has been teaching several classes that involve using technology to improve the quality of their schoolwork.
As the founder of Safety Net, Joe provides a variety of presentations on improving the online experience, both in better educational performance and in cyber safety. It was after his own daughter came across inappropriate content online that got him involved in helping others in the area.
His work on cyber safety has been published by the Family Online Safety Institute, the Social Media Club, Calkins Media and more. He is also the author of #DigitalParenting- A Parent's Guide to Social Media, Cyberbullying &Online Activity, which was chosen as an Editor’s Pick in April 2016.