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Sexting laws: What parents need to know

We’ve all had that conversation warning our teens not to take any lewd pictures of themselves or others — maybe more than once. This also applies to forwarding a picture that was sent to him.

Teen shocked by sext message

There are constantly changing laws about sexting that you may not know about. What’s your liability, and what can police take if your child is suspected of passing along pornographic materials?

Teens have always flirted with the opposite sex, but technology has put a whole new spin on the act. Teens — both boys and girls — are sending and receiving naked pictures of themselves, citing flirting or peer pressure as the reason for the sext. Not only is this a bad idea, but it’s also considered a pretty serious crime in most states.

Sexting more common than you think

Parents may prefer to think these are isolated cases, but sexting is a common occurrence in the life of today’s teens.

According to research published in the July 2012 issue of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, an astounding 57 percent had been asked to send a sext. While most of these teens admitted to being bothered by the request, 28 percent of the students followed through and had sent a naked picture of themselves through text or email.

Officials investigating a recent case in a Cincinnati-area high school say hundreds of students may have been involved in recent cases of sexting. In January, up to eight cell phones belonging to high school students were confiscated and found to have videos on them made by a male student, who has since been expelled, according to police. The student involved has been charged with pandering obscenities involving a minor, which is a felony.

Consequences are real

Why do teens continue to send, receive and share sexts when there are serious consequences for being involved on any level? “I think the majority of them, they don’t understand or realize the consequences criminally, let alone if that were to get out on the internet,” says Madeira Chief Frank Maupin, regarding the Ohio case. As with drinking and driving or unprotected sex, many teens feel invincible — that bad things won’t happen to them.

Consequences for sexting are potentially very serious. “It’s a felony in the second degree,” says M.J. Donovan, lawyer for the Ohio teen charged with four felony counts. “It’s the second highest felony in the state of Ohio.” While the Ohio law was intended to protect children from exploitation and harm, teen sexting cases fall right into the same category — and same consequences, even when consenting teens are involved. “No one took advantage of him, no one exploited him,” she contends. “This is something he did in and of himself and he was not harmed.” In many states, teens involved in a sexting case — even if they only shared the image in question — may be required to register as a sex offender.

State laws vary

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) at least 13 states introduced bills or resolutions in 2012 that were aimed at sexting — Hawaii, New York, Pennsylvania and South Dakota all enacted new legislation that year.

At least 20 states and Guam have enacted bills addressing the issue of sexting and minors since 2009. All 50 states have laws in place to protect minors from exploitation through the distribution of sexually explicit images.

Police can confiscate family computers and cell phones when investigating your child’s involvement in a sexting case. Parents have ultimate responsibility for electronic use within the household, and can potentially be charged for damages caused by their minor child’s involvement in distributing lewd images.

If your state doesn’t have a specific law about teen sexting, the case will fall under child pornography laws, and garner up to three potential felony charges.

  • Possession of child pornography, even if your teen isn’t in the picture
  • Distribution or sharing a photo, regardless of who is in the picture
  • Promoting means taking the picture, even if the teen takes it of herself

The difficulty lies in drawing distinctions between a pedophile who trolls the internet for child pornography and the high school girl who sends a flirty nude shot to her boyfriend. Interpreting the law as strict violation of child pornography laws can land many teens in hot water, and jeopardize the rest of their lives.

Bottom line

If you have teens, you can’t have this conversation with them often enough. Don’t just talk about sexting once and let it go — the conversation needs to be ongoing. In this new modern age where every last little email and image lives in cyberspace, we need to help our teens develop a digital footprint they can be proud of, not live in fear of. The consequences of a split-second decision can be devastating for your teen.

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