Teen Sexting vs. Child Pornography

In the wake of the recent teen sexting scandals in Long Island, New York and Cañon City, Colorado, parents across the nation are in panic mode — horrified by thoughts of their own kids taking and sending nude selfies. That said, there is a legitimate question as to whether adolescent sexting is a serious socio-sexual problem or simply part of the American teenager’s new normal. In other words, are digital-age teens merely exploring their sexuality (as they always have) via digital technology, or are they intentionally creating a selfie-driven wellspring of child pornography — passing it around, posting it online, and not caring who might suffer as a result?

Quite frankly, there’s probably not a school system in the entire country that doesn’t have at least a few kids who are actively sexting. Most of the time this behavior is meant to be nothing more than harmless adolescent sexual adventuring, no worse (in the eyes of the kids doing it) than fumbling around in the back seat of a Chevy. However, we cannot ignore the fact that there is often a fine line between harmless and harmful. Nor can we escape the fact that creating, exchanging, storing, and even just looking at sexualized imagery of minors is a crime in every U.S. jurisdiction. Usually it’s a felony. Even when it’s a matter of teens being teens.

In Colorado, it looks as if 100 or more students have taken and/or exchanged nude photos of themselves and fellow pupils (link is external), passing the pics around like a plate of nachos at a party. Currently, police are trying to determine if some of the kids who participated in the sexting were coerced into creating and sending images, and if any adults were involved. Some of the ringleaders may be charged with the creation, possession, and/or distribution of child pornography. Meanwhile, in Long Island a pair of 14-year-old boys sent a sex video involving another minor out as a group text (link is external). The two boys have since been charged with felonies, and the recipients of their sext might also face legal sanctions. Though it seems unlikely that any of the kids involved in either situation will face jail time, several could still be forced to register as sex offenders. As such, a lot of kids who probably thought they were engaging in a fun and perfectly normal activity (for them) may soon be facing some incredibly serious consequences.

And these situations are hardly isolated incidents. The simple truth is that teen sexting is relatively common — a fact that really shouldn’t surprise anyone. I mean, weren’t we all teenagers once upon a time, with raging hormones and bad ideas and weird thoughts about what is and isn’t appropriate sexual behavior? And didn’t we all engage in lots of stupid activity as a result? So the fact that so many of today’s adolescents choose to sext without a second thought should almost be expected — doubly so given their love of digital technology and the “cool factor” it can bring.

In today’s world, teen sexting is, for most adolescents, both acceptable and not a problem. For them, it is just another part of our culture’s ongoing tech-driven sexual evolution, which is constantly creating a new normal for adolescent (and adult) sexuality — much as “the pill” did back in the 1960s and 70s. As usual, of course, parents are horrified by this (and any other) new development in adolescent sexual expression. Nevertheless, teens are going to sext. And for them it just isn’t a big deal. Regardless of how their parents feel about it.

In case you’re wondering, I’m not just pulling this “lots of teens are sexting and it’s usually not a huge problem” assertion out of thin air. Recent research backs me up. In one study (link is external)of college undergraduates 28% said they’d taken and sent sexualized images as minors, and nearly all of them said they’d done so without consequences. Another study (link is external) finds that teen sexting is widespread and engaged in by high functioning, emotionally healthy kids as well as kids with problems (poor grades, substance use/abuse, unresolved trauma issues, etc.) In yet another study (link is external) researchers found that sexting is both common and not linked to teens’ emotional or psychological wellbeing. Here, researchers concluded that “sexting is a new “normal” part of adolescent sexual development.”

Photo purchased from iStockphoto, used with permission.

Of course, as with other forms of adolescent sexual exploration (see: “back seat” and “Chevy”), teen sexting is not without the occasional problem. For starters, there are legal issues to contend with — a discussion complicated by the fact that most minors who sext are unaware they’re breaking the law (link is external). Exacerbating matters is the fact that when it comes to the use of digital devices, our legal system lags rather far behind our technological reality. In other words, the vast majority of jurisdictions do not have laws that specifically address teen sexting, meaning this behavior must be shoehorned into existing statutes created to punish adult offenders — a practice that can look rather draconian when applied to minors (as we’re already seeing in Long Island).

At the end of the day, the difference between healthy adolescent sexual exploration and the intentional criminal creation and dissemination of child pornography may be intent. If teens are simply “playing around,” as teens are wont to do, then adolescent sexting might indeed be part of the new normal. If, however, a teen is manipulating other adolescents into sexting and then sharing those sexts inappropriately, we are likely dealing with a more serious issue. Hopefully, our legal system will soon catch up our technological reality, creating new laws that take our society’s ongoing tech-driven sexual evolution into account.

By: Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S

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