As parents and caregivers, it is important for us to understand sexting and the implications to our teens, understanding that they are engaging in a behavior that is commonplace in their world but carries complicated implications in our legal system. For today’s blog, we are talking about images consensually shared between tween or teens.
“Sexting is the sending of nude, suggestive, or sexually explicit photos by electronic means, usually through texts, chat boards, or social media. Maryland is one of the states that does not have specific sexting legislation. Sexting that involves minors falls under the state’s child pornography and related laws. While these laws were originally intended to punish adults who exploit children, they can impose the same harsh penalties on teens—many of whom are minors—for common adolescent behavior.”
Inevitably, if your tween or teen has a mobile device or access to the Internet, they will probably have some interaction with sexually inappropriate electronic images.
The Cyberbully Research Center collected (unpublished) data in April 2019 from a national sample of nearly 5,000 youth between the ages of 12 and 17. They found that 14% sent and 23% had received sexually explicit images. These figures represent an increase of 13% for sending and 22% for receiving from what they previously found in 2016. These images can be distributed via text messages (sexting), open and anonymous chat/video rooms, mobile applications like Discord and Omegle, some social media applications like SnapChat or directly from one mobile device to another.
What to do if your tween or teen receives an explicit image?
- If your children have received any nude pictures on their phones, have them delete the photos. Your family does not want to run the risk of having what could be deemed “child pornography” on any of its devices.
- Do not re-send/forward the picture to anyone.
- Ensure your child tells parent/care provider/trusted adult. This is a serious matter, and it requires a calm, supportive conversation. Your child may/may not have asked for this photo.
- Discuss the matter as a family. This is a teaching moment for everyone. It is important to ensure everyone in the household is aligned regarding how to handle such incidents.
- If your child knows who sent the content, address the issue with that child and their parents/care providers.
- Some experts advise that you report the photo to your local police. In some states, teachers and other school staff are required by law to report sexting photos to law enforcement. If malice or criminal intent or an adult is involved, you may want to get some legal advice. As child-pornography charges could be filed against anyone involved.
What to do if your tween or teen sent an image to someone else?
- Talk about the situation with your child. It will be uncomfortable, but this is a serious event. Help them understand that once something is “on the Internet”, its permanent no matter what anyone says to the contrary.
- Avoid shaming your child, instead teach and discuss with them the importance of self-respect, self-worth and how sending such images does not support a healthy sense of self. Discuss the psychological impacts…what does that say about how the child sees/feels about themselves. What do others think of your child that they would send this?
- Discuss the legal consequences of their action under both state and federal law.
- Explain the long-term consequences of these action; legal, social, familial. It takes a long time to build a good reputation and one inappropriate photo to ruin it.
The Law In Maryland
When sexually material has been sent to a minor, some states consider this child pornography. This designation of child pornography includes both children participating in the sexting and any additional viewers of the materials (photos or videos) that are shared with or without consent.
“In Maryland, a person who creates, distributes, or possesses with intent to distribute child pornography faces harsh felony penalties. Child pornography includes images or videos depicting a minor (younger than 18) engaged in an obscene act or sexual conduct. The Maryland Court of Appeals held that child pornography charges apply to selfies taken by minors. In a 2019 case, a 16-year-old was found guilty of child pornography for filming herself engaged in sexual conduct and sending the video to her teenage friends. The court held that, under the plain language of the statute, the 16-year-old could be both the pornographer and the subject of child pornography. (In re S.K., 215 A.3d 300 (Md. Ct. App. 2019).)”
When most laws related to child pornography were written, sexting between minors was not remotely in the minds of legislators. Laws are constantly changings to address today’s technology and how adolescent’s use it to exchange explicit material. This year the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation (HB180) to address aspects of the law:
- Prohibits the court from placing the child in community detention in consensual sexting cases.
- Authorizing the court to order a child engaged in sexting behavior to participate in an age-appropriate educational program.
- Specifically outlines that sexting does not apply to cases where there is an age difference of 4 or more years between the two children involved, nor does it apply to cases where a child does not consent or was coerced or threatened into participation.
Unfortunately, many parents and caregivers are unaware of the serious consequences related to the taking, sending, and sharing of sexually explicit material between tweens and teens. As parents and care givers, it is imperative to regularly speak with your teen about the emotional and mental impact of sexting; what to do if they receive sexually explicit material or if they send it; and the potential legal ramifications of possessing and transmitting this type of content.