Statute for teen sexting necessary

By Opinions Editor

Young adults were once scolded for making out at drive-in movies, but now middle and high schoolers have smartphones and social media offering new ways to explore sex at a younger age. 

Teenagers who distribute or obtain nude photos of peers and sexual partners who are under the age of 18 can face child pornography charges. States each have their own penalties, but child pornography possession, distribution and production typically result in jail time and registration with the state’s sex offender database. 

Twenty-eight percent of undergraduates reported sending sexual photos via text as minors in a 2014 Drexel University study. Sixty-one percent of those surveyed were not aware that sending sexts is legally considered child pornography, according to the study. 

 Teenagers who exchange explicit photos, especially with a boyfriend or girlfriend, are generally not doing so with exploitative intentions. Teens frequently use pornography and Internet articles to learn about sex, so it is natural for high schoolers to extend their sexual exploration to Snapchat and other applications.

When photos are passed on without the consent of the subject of the photo, there should be consequences. Like most digital content, photos are permanent and could resurface years after their original distribution and teenagers may not have taken that into account. Unlike adults, whose judgment is informed by the brain’s more logical frontal lobes, teens process decisions through the amygdala, which can result in more emotionally-loaded decision making, according to the University of Rochester Medical Encyclopedia.  Parents and sex education teachers have a responsibility to inform underage teenagers of the possible long-term effects of sending explicit photos to their peers. 

The consequences of breaking child pornography laws are indisputably fair for adults who sexually exploit and abuse minors. However, under current laws, a 17-year-old who willingly exchanges nude photos with a peer can face the same criminal charges, despite vastly different intentions.  Lawmakers should change child pornography laws to account for teenagers who exchange explicit but consensual photos. 

In the last decade, states have adjusted statutory rape laws to account for instances in which one partner is older than 18 while the other is a minor.  Before the statutes were enacted, 18- and 19-year-olds who had sex with their high school-aged girlfriends or boyfriends could face statutory rape charges and be forced to register as sex offenders. Enacting a similar provision to child pornography laws could protect teenagers who engage in sexting with their peers. 

A criminal charge can affect college acceptance and employment later in life. Sexual exploration through technology is natural. As long as the parties are educated about the potential consequences of having these photos in circulation and no coercion is present, there’s no need for criminal prosecution.