In some states, sexting could land teens in jail for a long time

(Reuters Health) - Sexting - the texting of sexual images - is increasingly common among teens, but in nearly half the U.S. the practice may hold an unexpected danger: in 23 states, sexting between teens is considered child pornography, which could potentially result in a 20-year prison term and mandatory registration as a sex offender, a new report warns.

More than a quarter of teens say they have received a sext and nearly 15 percent say they have sent a sext, researchers report in Pediatrics. The prevalence of sexting has been on the rise as more and more teens acquire smart phones, the authors noted.

“Sexting is common among teenagers,” said Dr. Vic Strasburger, a distinguished professor of pediatrics emeritus at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine and author of the forthcoming book, “The Death of Childhood: Reinventing the Joy of Growing Up.”

And while sexting may not be a smart choice, many assume it’s private and aren’t considering the possibility that “your partner may send the sext to 100 of his or her closest friends,” Strasburger said. And parents need to realize that teens, with their unfinished brains, will not always be making the smartest choices, he added.

“It’s not a great idea if your son or daughter wants to do it, but it shouldn’t land them in jail for 20 years and labeled as a sex offender,” Strasburger said. “You would think that state legislatures would agree with that, but unfortunately 23 don’t.”

In a review of recent studies on sexting, Strasburger described a meta-analysis that found 15 percent of teens had sent a sext, 27 percent had received a sext and 12 percent had forwarded a sext without consent. A more recent study, which surveyed 6,021 high school students, found that 29 percent were engaged in consensual sexting.

All of that should be downright scary information for parents living in one of the 23 states, where teens can be prosecuted with child pornography statutes,

While the best solution would be to change the laws, that will take time, Strasburger said. In the meantime, parents need to talk with their teens, he added.

“Parents need to understand that these days there’s no longer the need for THE BIG TALK,” Strasburger said. “There is a desperate need for 50 small talks. When you’re watching TV with your teen and a sexy scene comes on, ask your teen why they think the characters are jumping into bed with one another. If you’re watching a golf tournament and you keep seeing ads for Cialis, ask your teenage son why he thinks they are advertising this product so much during golf.”

The new paper describes “a good example in which the laws have not kept pace with the changes in the digital world,” said Beth Schwanke, executive director of the University of Pittsburgh Institute for Cyber Law, Policy, and Security. “They were written at a completely different time technologically and even in terms of sexual mores. Most haven’t decriminalized sexting. They haven’t found ways to distinguish between teens sexting consensually and child pornography.”

Schwanke was struck by the fact that a teen could go to jail for 20 years for behavior “that wouldn’t be against the law if it were from adults.”

“A lot of people don’t realize that when a girlfriend is sexting her boyfriend purely privately, they could be caught up in child pornography law,” Schwanke said. Until the laws change, “this is something that needs to be addressed by families, by educators and by doctors, too. Appropriate social media and technology use can be a conversation at the yearly well visit.”

No matter what the laws are in your state, “it’s always important to emphasize that sexting is not a good idea even when it’s consensual, said Dr. Matthew Davis, division head of academic general pediatrics and primary care at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and a professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

“I encourage parents of teens in all states to talk to their teens and discourage them from sexting because even when sexting is consensual, those images are out of the control of the teens as soon as they have sent them,” Davis said. “And that is true regardless of the laws in the state where the families live.”

More information about sexting laws across the U.S. is available from the Cyberbullying Research Center, at

SOURCE: Pediatrics, online April 15, 2019.