Sexting Could Land Some Teens in Jail

Published April 1, 2009

Children have played the game of “show me yours and I’ll show you mine” for ages, but today the game has gone digital, with teens using their cell phones to text provocative pictures of their bodies to one another.

The practice, called “sexting,” constitutes trafficking in nude photos of minors, and it’s getting some teenagers in serious legal trouble. Teens have been charged in Indiana, Pennsylvania, and other states with trafficking in child pornography and other sex-related charges for sending or receiving racy pictures on their cell phones.

The incidents have raised questions about whether prosecuting a teen for willingly sending a provocative picture to another minor is the right way to deal with the behavior.

Police Role Questioned

“We think it’s highly inappropriate for kids to do this, but it’s just as inappropriate for law enforcement to use a law geared towards protecting children from adults in cases in which both parties are teens,” said Stephen Balkam, CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute, an international organization that aims to identify and promote best practices for online safety.

“There are a number of ways in which parents can sanction and deal with their kids when they get involved in sending these pictures, but we don’t believe this should be a criminal act for what some are describing as playing doctor,” Balkam added. “I think this is symptomatic of a more serious and broader issue, particularly among teenage boys.

“Over the last five to eight years, they have had easy access to hardcore pornography with their expectation that their girlfriends should act in a way that a porn star would,” Balkam said. “Sending provocative pictures could be the beginning of what we will see as a result of the exposure to pornographic material. It is a real concern, but putting them in jail and throwing away the key is not the answer.”

Alternatives Suggested

Balkam suggested the proper course could come in the form of school suspensions, reduced privileges, and confiscation of cell phones by schools or parents. Anne Collier, co-director of and editor of, says prosecution should be reserved for only a narrow category of offenses.

“I don’t think minors should be prosecuted for sending nude photos of themselves or peers on cell phones or other electronic devices, except in the rarest of cases,” Collier said.

“‘Sexting’ or [other] impulsive adolescent behavior needs to be handled on a case-by-case basis—ideally by parents and school administrators,” Collier added. “If police are involved, I feel they should have an educational role in helping kids understand what a serious crime trafficking in child pornography is and what it could mean for them were they to be charged and prosecuted for it.”

At press time, charges against teens in some cases had resulted in admissions to lesser misdemeanors, but several cases against teen defendants are still pending.

Aricka Flowers ([email protected]) writes from Chicago.