Every parent should be aware that a disturbing new activity is rising among teenagers that could result in the criminal prosecution of teens and even younger children. Can you guess what this activity is? Everyone knows what "texting" is... but teenagers and even middle-school age children are now sexting with alarming frequency. They are transmitting and receiving sexually suggestive material or explicit photos of themselves and their friends via cell phone picture messages.
Before you say "my son or daughter knows better" than to engage in this activity, you need to be aware that even the best of kids can very innocently receive a "sext" from a friend that can land them in serious legal hot water. And make no doubt about it, sexting is prevalent. Within the last year, several polls report that 20 - 30 percent of teens admitted to sexting.
Certainly many teenagers don't realize that this activity could result in a felony conviction. But, because sexting transmits images (unlike phone conversations), any activity involving photos of teenagers under the age of 18 exposes the sender (and possibly the recipient) to a number of severe legal consequences.
Here's why kids are being prosecuted: explicit images involving any form of partial or full nudity of a person under age 18 could be viewed by prosecutors as child pornography. If the prosecutor takes this position, sex offenses and child pornography charges can follow. Such cases can have severe consequences - including mandatory prison time and lifetime registration as a sex offender.
For example, a pair of Indiana middle school students faced felony charges in January 2010 for allegedly texting naked photos to each other. The students - a 13-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy - were charged with felony child exploitation and possession of child pornography. In February 2010, three Oregon middle school students were accused of texting a nude photo of a classmate. They faced criminal charges carrying penalties that included having to register as sex offenders.
In addition to landing kids in hot water, it is possible that if the images are on a phone that is in a parent's name, or the images are "sexted" to a computer in the parent's home (i.e. sent via cell phone to an email address) the parents themselves now "own" a device containing what could be construed as child pornography.
Finally, in addition to the severe legal consequences, other serious effects of "sexting" include the possibility that the images will be forwarded to others and/or end up posted all over the Internet. For some teens, this can be too much shame and embarrassment to handle. Tragically, the media recently reported two incidents in which teen girls committed suicide after "sexted" photos of them were widely distributed. http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/34236377/ns/today-today_people/. Be sure to remind your teen: once it's in cyberspace, there's no way to get it back.
Every parent should be aware of the widespread nature of sexting, in order to keep a close eye on those digital devices. More importantly, every parent should make a point to talk to their teens about the possible severe legal consequences of such activity. Tell your kids if they get a "suggestive" image to delete it immediately - and never, under any circumstances, to forward it.
If you or your child is ever approached by the police regarding the transmission of images (or any other activity), you and your child need to be aware that this is a serious matter. Otherwise, the police would not be asking questions. Most importantly, tell your child they should not talk with the police without speaking to an attorney first. No exceptions. This applies even if you or your child think it is not a big deal; or you believe you can talk yourself out of trouble.
Remember, a criminal record or even being the subject of an investigation is serious. It can prevent your child from getting into college, playing sports, obtaining a professional license, or being hired for many years to come. If your child is ever in trouble, I would be happy to answer any questions you may have. Call me at the Law Office of John Freeman, PLLC at 248-526-0555, or visit my website.
For media reports on sexting, see: