Sexting, usually defined as sending sexually explicit messages or photographs by mobile phone, continues to be a prevalent behavior among young people, and even appears to be increasing, particularly among older youth, according to a study from JAMA Pediatrics.
But fewer young people are being hauled into court for the practice—a trend welcomed by juvenile justice advocates who argue strategies of counseling, education and prevention are more productive and less harmful.
The authors of the Jama study, using a meta-analysis of 39 studies with over 110,000 participants, found the mean prevalences for sending and receiving sexts were 14.8 percent and 27.4 percent, respectively, “with prevalence rates increasing in recent years and as youth age.”
The prevalences of forwarding a sext without consent and having a sext forwarded without consent were 12 percent and 8.4 percent, respectively, the study said.
The study authors noted that existing research suggested that “sexting is a predictor of sexual behavior and may be associated with other health outcomes and risky behaviors,” but the lack of consensus about its prevalence impeded intervention and policy development.
Underage sexting is a criminal offense, but the legal system is now focusing more on prevention and rehabilitation than on punishment and detention, experts told The Crime Report.
“Lately I have seen much less police involvement [in terms of] actually charging kids with possession of child pornography and distribution of child pornography,” said Laura Sutnick, a New Jersey criminal trial attorney, in an interview.
“Instead, I think schools are talking to the kids, and juvenile police officers are talking to the kids.”
Not all states have specific teen sexting laws, but those that do typically target pictures sent between two teenagers, according to attorney Mark Theoharis. Sexting with a minor falls under child pornography laws, even if both people involved are underage.
Sutnick has seen more recent collaboration between police officers and schools in terms of educating young people about sexting laws. She also has seen schools intervene if they find prohibited images or texts on a student’s phone.
Bringing juveniles into a police station, Sutnick added, would be “a nightmare for the school and the community.”
According to Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel for the non-profit public interest law firm Juvenile Law Center, there is less criminal stigma attached to sexting than there was a decade ago.
“The conversation was elevated because of the risk that some of these arrests might result as some sort of registered offense, which was a very important issue for us,” said Levick, who co-authored a 2010 report on sexting and child pornography.
Federal law considers any sexual images of a minor child to be pornography, but individual states vary in their punishment for juveniles found to be in possession of those images. Levick said the legal community’s sense of urgency about the need to take criminal action has considerably diminished since 2010.
“There was a lot of zeal to prosecute, but there was also an enormous amount of pushback from certain members of the community,” Levick said. “Parents and some wiser school administrators recognized that criminalizing this behavior was crazy.”
Although laws still remain in place, even when a minor appears before a juvenile court, he or she is more likely to be offered diversion program or at least a minor sentence.
“No matter what a kid is charged with, I think when you have a case in the juvenile justice system, the prosecutor, the judge and the defense attorney have a different focus,” Sutnick said.
Former prosecutor Susan Broderick echoed Sutnick, saying diversion programs are plentiful in juvenile courts nationwide.
“It’s in that awareness of knowing we’ve all been teenagers and have all done stupid things,” Broderick said. “It’s recognizing if it’s not something egregious or very severe or violent, we should give the kids the benefit of the doubt.
“I think sexting fits very well in the diversion category because it gives an opportunity to raise awareness about the dangers of sexting.”
Broderick said there has been a stronger emphasis among educators, parents and schools to prioritize prevention, including through disseminating information about the harm it can do to students’ peers.
Many young people appear to have got the message. A forthcoming study in the Computers in Human Behavior journal says most juveniles are aware of the illegality of sexting, and most view it as a criminal, non-normal and infrequent part of today’s youth culture.
Over 80 percent of the juveniles surveyed correctly knew that sexting under the age of 18 was a crime, and more than 50 percent thought sexting could result in both school trouble and trouble with police. Nevertheless, Yet fewer than 30 percent answered yes to a question about whether they were extremely likely to report sexting to a parent or teacher. This number was even higher when the question focused on reporting to a parent alone—at 39 percent.
Children were also less likely to report sexting as they got older. Boys were less likely than girls to report sexting, and less likely to try and prevent their friends from sexting.
Meanwhile, sexting has increased with the rise in cell phone and smartphone usage among teenagers.
“Juveniles say the most inappropriate things on text messages that they would never say to somebody face-to-face,” Sutnick said.
“They would never go in front of all their friends and pull their shirt down. But they would take a picture of themselves and send it to somebody.”
Around 71 percent of teens had a cellphone in 2008, which jumped to nearly 90 percent in 2015. As cell phone usage becomes more normalized, conversations about how teens are using phones have shifted.
“(In 2010) it really felt like there was an adult and parental fear about what kids are doing with technology,” Levick said. “It feels like that moment has passed. From an incredibly personal perspective, I’m not seeing it as much.”
The Computers in Human Behavior (CHB) study emphasized the importance of youth voices when discussing sexting, and argued that young people’s perspectives should be part of the development of prevention strategies.
“They need to consult with children when they create education and prevention programs and they need to evaluate the programs to make sure they are beneficial,” the authors wrote.
When discussing prevention, Sutnick thinks parents and educators should be transparent with kids about the consequences of sexting and resources available to them in the courts.
“Kids are supposed to make mistakes,” Sutnick said. “I think the juvenile justice system is more forgiving because of that.”
The CHB study was prepared by Ateret Gewirtz-Meydan, Kimberly J. Mitchell, and Emily F. Rothman.
The JAMA Pediatrics study was prepared by Sheri Madigan, Anh Ly, Christina L. Rash, Joris Van Ouytsel, and Jeff R. Temple.
Marsha Levick’s 2010 study was co-authored by Kristina Moon.
Marianne Dodson is a TCR news intern. She welcomes comments from readers.