Today’s blog is a guest post from a team of criminal defense lawyers in Springfield, Missouri (Carver, Cantin & Mynarich). The firm specializes in Internet crimes, along with serious felonies, criminal tax, and a wide range of other criminal cases. The firm is a 2017 and 2018 U.S. News & Best Lawyers Best Law Firm in America.
With the rise of the smartphone and numerous apps to allow people to share pictures and videos with one another, an increasing number of teenagers have been involved with sexting or sharing graphic photos. Some notorious cases where kids have maliciously shared others’ photos have garnered widespread attention, but teens could even face serious legal problems from sharing graphic images within a consensual relationship.
When people under 18 take nude photos of themselves or each other, they could face prosecution for child pornography charges. This charge comes with long-term consequences.
While many parents know that it is important to monitor their kids’ internet usage, it’s increasingly difficult to do so when teens don’t rely on the family computer for most of their online access. Smartphones and tablets are the primary mechanisms by which young people use the internet and communicate with each other. Plus, there are a number of apps that are designed to maintain secret, encrypted, or self-deleting conversations and photos.
Sexting – coined from the phrase “sex texting” – refers to sending and receiving explicit, sexual images, videos, and messages over SMS, online messaging programs or the internet. The popularity of sexting has added yet another challenge to the already difficult teenage years. With the changes that come along with puberty and sexual experimentation, it can be tempting to share and receive sexts, especially with other teens.
However, sexting can be prompted by more complex factors than desire alone. Girls may feel like they need to sext in order to receive attention, praise or affection. Boys can also face serious peer pressure to show off their own experience and desirability. However, when people share nude photos with others, the recipient could spread the photos and videos to a wider, unwanted audience. The result could be humiliation, stigmatization, and even felony criminal charges. Sexual images of children under 18 are considered child pornography, even if they are “selfies” produced by the teens themselves.
Parents, teachers, and other trusted adults can help kids deal with these issues by keeping an eye on their children’s online presence and establishing open lines of communication about difficult subjects like sexuality and relationships. “Childproofing” technology can be important even for older teens. While it’s important not to block sex-education sites, it could be a good idea to remove webcams from personal laptops.
Some apps like Snapchat are designed to avoid monitoring altogether, although images sent over the service aren’t truly secret. Social media apps like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Kik can have their positives and negatives. Parents should “friend” their children and take a look at their privacy settings.
Although they may not be aware of it, in many countries teens can face child pornography charges at the felony level for even consensual sexting. This complex legal landscape has led to a situation in which victims and perpetrators of non-consensual sexting can be treated the same under the law.
When a teen has his or her 18th birthday, he or she is now open to adult criminal charges, even if their sexting partner is very close to adulthood as well. While sexting cases are usually charged in state court – and the Federal Juvenile Delinquency Act prefers that juvenile charges be handled at the state level – there are federal laws against child pornography that could be brought to bear, such as the PROTECT Act, especially for those 18-year-old adults.
School districts have a responsibility to their students and to the community to educate and create a safe space that guards against sexual exploitation without promoting excessive panic. In particular, teens who are the victims of unsolicited sexting, nonconsensual photo sharing or sexual harassment need to be able to find support from the school district. Responsible policies around sexting should highlight the importance of consent while holding perpetrators accountable; this goes not only to the core of the sexting issue but also our national conversation around sexual assault.
Schools can face parental lawsuits over incidents stemming from sexting; in addition, school officials have themselves faced charges for keeping copies of the photos involved in sexting cases, despite a lack of prurient interest in the materials. Education around sexting can benefit from avoiding panic, but instilling strong values around consent, knowledge, and accountability.
Non-consensual sharing of explicit photos is not far removed from other types of cyberbullying, and teens need knowledge about protecting their privacy on social media. By raising awareness about privacy and consent, schools can help to build a healthier social environment that strongly discourages nonconsensual sexual behavior and privacy violations.