The use of text messages among Americans, particularly teens, has skyrocketed over the last decade.
The large increase highlights the role texting plays in the average American’s social life. With the development of smartphones, the use of technology to communicate has shifted even further, now including a growing reliance on the ability to send pictures.
Teenagers are using this mode of communication as “a new form of finding friends and flirting.” Some teens even take what they may consider the private nature of this mode of communication a step too far, asking for and sending sexually provocative pictures.
“Sexting,” the act of sending naked or otherwise provocative photos to another via text or electronic message, is receiving media attention not only for the social repercussions that can range from embarrassment to bullying, but also for the legal implications tied to sending and receiving pictures of those under the age of 18.
A recent study by scientists with the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston polled almost 1,000 high school students from seven public high schools in Texas. The researchers found almost one third of polled students were involved in sexting by either sending or receiving provocative pictures.
Although the high rate of teenage involvement in sending sexually explicit photographs by electronic means is concerning, another study highlights a potentially more disturbing trend. Most participants stated that they were bothered by the request to send a sexually explicit image, but, according to a study released in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, over a third of high school students who participate in this behavior do so regardless of knowing the potential legal implications.
The Archives of Sexual Behavior study polled almost 1,000 high school students in Texas, with a fairly even representation of freshman, sophomores, juniors and seniors. The study was completed by passing out questionnaires to the students during class time. Parents were made aware of the study weeks before and could opt their children out of participation. Students could also choose not to take part. Even with these options, a very high rate of students partook in the poll.
The survey included questions about cellphone ownership; whether sending sexually explicit pictures was right or wrong; and whether the student had been asked to send, or had sent, such pictures.
The questionnaire also included an open-ended question regarding legal consequences asking whether the students believed there were any legal consequences tied to sexting. Just over a quarter of the students chose to respond to this particular question with 58 percent stating that they believed there were severe consequences tied to sexting.
The research also found that these same students were not deterred by these potential legal consequences; in fact they stated the consequences made them “significantly more likely” to have participated in sexting.
Legal Repercussions Associated With Sexting
This reaction by teenagers was thought by some researchers to be the students’ way of fighting the system. The scientists believed the students felt society had changed and the law simply wasn’t keeping up. As a result, they were more likely to engage in sexting in the hopes of changing the law.
The shift in what may be considered “normal teen conduct” has made for some difficult dilemmas for prosecutors and enforcement officers across Texas. Although most students agreed that forwarding sexts to third parties is improper, professionals within the legal and law enforcement fields began voicing concerns about the severity of legal implications tied to these acts.
Forwarding a naked picture of an individual who is under the age of 18 can qualify as possessing or trafficking child pornography. These charges, often felonies, could lead to criminal prosecution, felony convictions carrying hefty prison sentences and the lifelong requirement to register as a sex offender – penalties that seem far too severe for a youthful mistake.
In consideration of this dilemma, in 2011 the Texas Legislature passed and Gov. Rick Perry signed Senate Bill 407. This law prohibits minors from “intentionally promoting or possessing text messages that contain explicit images of those 18 and younger,” but punishes offenders with misdemeanor, instead of felony, charges.
In order to ensure the minor offender understands the seriousness of the charge, he or she is still required to appear in court and attend court-mandated educational courses on the lifelong consequences of sexting. The alleged offender’s parents are also required to make a court appearance.
In addition, charges may be increased if the offender is found to have used the explicit images to “harass, annoy, alarm, abuse, torment, embarrass or offend another.”
Even with the protections available under Senate Bill 407, additional defenses may apply. If a couple is within two years of each other and in a relationship, the Romeo-and-Juliet affirmative defense may protect the individual charged with the violation. Exemptions can also apply if the message was not solicited and when received was promptly deleted or if the message was confiscated by law enforcement officials or school administrators and handled in accordance with the law.
Although the law around sexting is evolving, one thing is clear: a significant number of high school students are both sending and receiving sexually explicit messages. If you or a loved one faces one of the many legal consequences tied to sexting, it is important to seek the counsel of an experienced sex crimes attorney. This professional will be able to discuss your unique situation and help you better understand your legal rights.