Sexting: Form of Expression or a Criminal Act?



By: Kate Nazario, LPC

Sexting: By definition, it’s the distribution of sexually explicit images, videos or messages by cell phone, computer, or other electronic devices.  With the advancement in technology, social interactions have become a thing of the past without the use of social media platforms.  It’s true – social media makes conversation much easier with strangers.  You have more time to think about what you want to say, an awkward discussion becomes much easier without having to face them, and your ability to open up and “be yourself” becomes second nature.  The world is at your fingertips!  However, with that freedom comes a lot of responsibility.

Sexting seems to have become a norm in many relationships.  As adults, no legal ramifications come along with this common practice as long as all parties consent.  That’s right.  This means that any person, either distributing or receiving these sexts, must agree to receiving or sending them; otherwise, legal ramifications can occur. Again, please keep in mind that while two consenting adults are allowed to sext, those images never “disappear.” Phone companies and electronic devices maintain all information even if you’ve deleted it off of your device, so it’s important to use your best judgment on who you are sending to or receiving images from, and what content is being shared.

As a therapist, I work with many adolescents and their parents where sexting has become a growing issue.  In a digital world, it appears that there is no real privacy.  Messages, photos, videos, etc. can be copied, sent, posted, and viewed by large audiences, and you have no control over any of it.  This makes it particularly dangerous as it can get into the hands of predators. In New Jersey, harsh laws have been established in an attempt to protect sex crimes involving minors.

So, what exactly violates the child pornography laws in New Jersey?

  • If one or both parties involved in sexting is a minor.
  • Possessing an item depicting sexual exploitation or abuse of a minor.
  • Distributing an item depicting sexual exploitation or abuse of a minor.
  • Storing or maintaining child pornography using a file-sharing program.

And how does this apply to sexting? Let’s say your 16-year-old son is dating another student who is also 16 and receives a nude photo from her. If your son saves that photo on his phone, he can be charged with child pornography even though the photo was just for him and there was no distribution.  A conviction of child pornography may result in serious legal repercussions, which can include a prison sentence, large fines, and registering as a sex offender in the state of NJ.

So what can we do as parents?

Start talking.  Don’t wait for an incident to happen! Look up your state’s laws and talk about the consequences of sexting.  It’s not the most comfortable conversation, but it’s a necessary one.  You don’t want to wait until it’s too late!

Remind your teens that once a photo, message or video is sent, there is no way to take it back.  Ask him or her how he or she would feel if teachers, co-workers, or strangers saw the content being considered for posting.

Give solutions.  Your teen may receive unwanted videos, images, or messages.  Give him or her the tools on how to handle the situation.  He or she should tell you or a trusted adult and never forward or share these videos, images, or messages with friends.

Utilize your resources.  Unfortunately, the internet can be a dangerous place. The upside to this is that there are many resources parents and caretakers can use to help educate themselves and family members before it’s too late. Check out some of the links below for some helpful tools.

  • NetsSmartz is an interactive and educational program developed by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC).  It offers age-appropriate resources to help teach children how to be safer on- and offline.
  • Common Sense developed a Sexting Handbook that families can use as a resource for appropriate language and support.  It’s also a great guide for parents who find this topic uncomfortable.
  • Connect Safely has created excellent tips that families and teens can use when dealing with sexting.
  • ThatsNotCool is a fantastic, interactive website that partners with young people in order to bring awareness, education, and tools to the community which address dating violence, unhealthy relationships, and digital abuse.
  • Many popular networks have used their platform to help educate their audiences about serious issues.  A Thin Line is a perfect example of this and is a campaign run by MTV to empower individuals to identify, respond to, and stop the spread of digital abuse.
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