Legal Dangers Involved With Sexting Largely Ignored By Teenagers
June 18, 2014

Legal Dangers Involved With Sexting Largely Ignored By Teenagers

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

A new survey from Drexel University found that many teens are blissfully, and dangerously, ignorant about the legal dangers posed by sending illicit photos, also known as sexting. The survey results are published in the journal Sexuality Research and Social Policy.

While the survey found that more than 50 percent of undergraduates surveyed at a large American university said they had exchanged sexually explicit text messages, the more alarming result was that they were unaware that many jurisdictions consider sexting among minors to be child pornography.

“This is a scary and disturbing combination,” said study author David DeMatteo, a mental health expert at Drexel. “Given the harsh legal penalties sometimes associated with youth sexting and the apparent frequency with which youth are engaging in it, the lack of comprehension regarding such penalties poses a significant problem.”

Survey respondents, from a large northeastern university, filled out an anonymous online survey regarding their engagement in sexting as minors. It showed a noteworthy relationship between understanding of legal consequences and sexting behavior as minors.

Those who were aware of the likely legal consequences said they had sexted as a minor considerably less than individuals who were not cognizant of the legal consequences. Furthermore, most respondents who noted being unaware of the possible legal consequences of sexting indicated they may have been discouraged from sexting as a minor if they had known.

The survey also found that volunteers described experiencing few unfavorable social or legal results as a result of sexting. However, 71 percent said they knew other teens who experienced unfavorable repercussions.

Only two percent of respondents said they told a teacher or parent about being on the receiving end of a sext.

The research team concluded that making minors aware of the legal consequences of sexting could help discourage the practice. They also said more states should adopt laws that discourage the practice.

Until recently, most states did not have laws in place to take care of cases of teenage sexting. Instead, they fit the act into the existing legal framework. As a result, youth sexting was often incorporated under laws governing child pornography and child exploitation. Convictions of these offenses can result in jail time and sex offender registration.

“It's a major concern that many states do not have laws that specifically address sexting,” DeMatteo said. “Sexting specific laws would be beneficial because they – ideally – would clearly define what constitutes sexting and outline potential penalties. To the latter point, these laws would make it possible for judges to avoid imposing overly harsh sentences on those who are prosecuted under sexting laws.”

The researchers also suggested the use of educational programs directed at delivering basic information to minors on the legal consequences of sexting and other potential repercussions such as humiliation, a damaged reputation and bullying.

“Young people need to be educated about the potential consequences of sexting—legal, social and psychological,” DeMatteo said. “The education should come from many sources – the more young people hear the message, the more likely it will be to sink in – so they should be educated by their parents, schools and perhaps even law enforcement.”