Exploring the Legality of Sexting Among Teens

Two teens smiling while looking at a phone screen.

Sexting is one of those things that previous generations may not have had to spend a lot of time worrying about, but today’s parents are very concerned with it. 

Learn about the legal implications of sexting among teenagers in this post. 

What is Sexting?

Sexting is what it’s called when people send risqué texts, photos, and videos to each other. 

Partners in a long-distance relationship, for example, might send partially or fully nude photos and suggestive messages in order to keep the romance alive while they’re apart. Sexting is a fairly common activity among adults and teenagers. But, as with many activities meant for adults, teenagers often lack the ability to predict the possible negative consequences when they engage in sexting. 

There are plenty of reasons for parents to be worried about teenagers sexting. 

  • Sexts are usually only intended for an audience of one, but it’s not uncommon for the receiver of a sext to pass them on to people who were never intended by the sender to see them. When sexts spread, they can humiliate the sender and cause serious damage to their reputation. 
  • Parents may also be concerned sexting is a precursor to or an indicator of their teen’s intent to engage in other sexual activities that they may not be ready for. 
  • But there’s another problem as well – the legal issues involved in sexting. Pictures or videos that depict minors nude or partially nude or that show them engaged in sexual activity may constitute child pornography – a serious offense. This is true even if the picture or video was shot by the person depicted or with their consent and only shared with other minors. 

Take a look at what you need to know about the legality of sexting among teens. 

A Patchwork of State Laws

Teen lying down looking at his phone screen.
Sexting could be a serious legal issue – just how serious varies by state. 

The first thing that you probably need to know about teen sexting is that the laws vary depending on where you happen to be located. 

Alabama, for example, does not have a law that specifically addresses sexting. However, the state does list “transmitting obscene material to a child by computer” as a crime, which could make anyone who sends a sext to an underage teen a criminal, even if that person is another underage teen. Indiana makes it a Class A misdemeanor for a person under 18 to possess an indecent image of another person under 18. 

Many states also have laws that address “revenge porn” which is the practice of spreading obscene photographs without the consent of the person depicted in the photograph. For example, if a teenage girl sends an explicit photo to her boyfriend, then after they break up, the boyfriend posts the picture on social media or sends it to all of his friends, that would be considered revenge porn because the girl pictured in the photograph didn’t consent to the photo being posted publicly or shared with others. Florida has laws that address sexting and that make sexual cyber-harassment – a term that includes revenge porn – a first-degree misdemeanor. Maine has no law that specifically addresses sexting, but does have a law addressing revenge porn. 

This means that depending on your location, you might need to be worried about your teen’s legal exposure if they send a sext, if they receive and keep a sext, or if they receive and disseminate a sext. 

Talking to Your Teen About Sexting

Teen girl looking intently at her phone screen.
Teens need to know about all the possible consequences of sexting, including the legal consequences. 

You can’t assume that your teen will be aware of the laws in your area, or that they’ll necessarily think of those laws when presented with an opportunity to send, receive, or share sexts. So, it’s important to have an honest conversation with your teen about the possible hazards of sexting. 

Check into the specifics of sexting laws in your state, then have a sit down with your teen. Make it clear to them that there could be serious consequences if they’re found to be involved in a legal investigation of sexting. But don’t only focus on the legal issues. Make sure that your teen is aware of the other risks of sexting as well. 

  • How will they feel about having sent a sext if they later break up with the person that they sent it to? 
  • Do they feel pressured to send sexts? 
  • Do they understand that there’s no guarantee that the person they send a sext to will be the only one who sees it? 
  • If they receive a sext, do they understand why it’s wrong to share that image with other people? 
  • Do they understand the harm that revenge porn causes to victims? 
  • If a friend of theirs sent them a sext not meant for them to see, how would they handle it? 

These are some of the topics that are important to discuss with your teen. Don’t assume that your teen is too young to send or receive sexts, or that they’re not affected because they don’t have a boyfriend or girlfriend. There are lots of reasons why teens may send or receive sexts, and parents don’t always know when teens have a romantic interest in their lives. 

How Monitoring Can Protect Teens

While there’s no substitute for making sure that your teens are informed and having open conversations with them, these things don’t always prevent teens from making poor decisions. Teens often act impulsively, without thinking through the long-term consequences. That’s why it’s important for parents to keep a watchful eye out for behavior that could land their teens in trouble. 

Parental monitoring software that’s installed on your child’s device can allow you to see what kinds of pictures, videos, and messages your teen is sending and receiving. While it may feel invasive, monitoring your teen’s device for inappropriate messages can give you a chance to deal with something like sexting before it becomes a legal issue. 

Let your teen know that while they’re underage, it’s your job to protect them, and that means making sure that they’re using their devices responsibly and legally. 

For more information about how parental monitoring software can work for you,  get our free trial