Why Sexting is Not Child Porn

worriedgirl

It’s horrifying to parents: why would our children WANT others to see naked pictures of them? Why do we have to even TALK to our children about the many reasons that voluntarily taking, sending, or sharing nude pictures is not in any child’s best interest?

But despite our horror over this digital and cultural divide between our children and us, the reality today is that sexting by teenagers, and even younger kids, is here to stay. Studies show that roughly 30% of 16 and 17 year olds share “suggestive images” with others via their cell phones. Over 50% of young adults do so.

So, whether we like it or not, we parents have no choice but to get involved. Which first means educating ourselves about technology and teen sexuality. I know how excited you all are about this.

First, be assured that, for the most part, sexting is usually harmless. Dicey, yes — especially for girls, who inadvertently run the risk of being “slut shamed” if naked pictures of them surface at school or among friends. And as we all know, pictures that make their way to the Internet may stay there for public consumption for years if not decades.

However, as with almost everything involving sexuality, consent is the key issue here. There is nothing illegal about teenagers having consensual sex. By most logical definitions, in the vast majority of cases, underage kids sexting is not child porn, unless adults are involved with creating, viewing, or distributing it. And often today, an increasingly normal part of sexual development, experimentation, and foreplay is sharing sexually suggestive photos. What gets kids in trouble is when the pictures are shared without consent, or as a form of revenge, bullying, or coercion.

We parents, and our children, need to be aware that, regardless of the intent, in many states, simply producing, distributing, or possessing sexually explicit pictures of someone who is under the age of legal sexual consent, can be prosecuted as child pornography. Parents, school boards, and local jurisdictions are grappling with how to resolve this reality. It’s led some states, including Florida, New York, and Illinois, to solve the problem by giving prosecutors the discretion to enact lesser penalties (misdemeanor charges or mandatory educational programs) when a child is caught sexting. At the other extreme, in some areas, such as Lebanon, Pennsylvania, public school boards have passed new policies that give school officials the right to search a child’s cell phone, computer or electronic device if they suspect sexting, and are allowed to turn the device (and the children involved) over to law enforcement.

So, in the absence of clear laws or guidelines on underage sexting, establish your own family’s playbook. No matter how awkward the conversation, talk to your kids about the dangers, and commonality, of sexting. If your child has a phone, or access to yours, you have leverage. Use it.

Although this sex and tech hairball is hard to tackle with our kids, and even within our minds, one day your kids may thank you for giving them the clarity and long-term view to keep sexting off their phones, off the Internet, and out of their lives.

 

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