Sexting scandals: how to protect kids from risky behavior – and legal fallout

Recent school scandals signal risk of severe legal outcomes, as teens may have to register as sex offenders after sending sexually explicit photos, videos, and texts to one another.

Tracy Harmon/The Pueblo Chieftain/AP
Canon City Police Chief Paul Schultz (l.) and Crime Prevention Coordinator Jen O'Connor listen as Superintendent George Welsh talks about a sexting scandal at Canon City High School during a news conference in Canon City, Colo., on Nov. 6, 2015. Across the US, laws from the pre-smartphone era are increasingly colliding with the digitally saturated reality of today's schools.

A pair of sexting scandals in New York and Colorado are the latest reminders of the need for parents to engage young people in conversations about sex and social media, experts say.

The two incidents, which both occurred over the last week, have raised concerns about the extent of sexting among students – and led parents, educators, and policymakers to rethink how to deal with teenagers who send sexually explicit photos, videos, and texts to one another.

The key, some say, lies less in punitive action than in meaningful dialogue between adults and adolescents.

“We’ve enabled kids to communicate in unprecedented ways without setting up precautionary measures,” says Diana Graber, co-founder of CyberWise, an online source for adults seeking to help kids use technology safely and productively. “Adults shouldn’t be freaking out about this. We should be thinking of strategies to solve the problem we sort of created.”

“Parents need to have these conversations with their kids,” she adds.  

On Thursday, local police arrested two 14-year-old boys in Long Island for allegedly filming a sex act that took place with a female in October – and then sending it out to other students in the Kings Park Central School District, WABC-TV reported. The news comes less than a week after authorities in Cañon City, Colo., began investigating a “sexting ring” involving about 100 students at a local high school.

In both cases, critics have focused on potential legal repercussions for the teens involved. Colorado state statutes, for instance, do not recognize consent when it comes to taking or exchanging nude photos of children under 18, even if everyone involved was a minor, District Attorney Tom LeDoux told The Denver Post.

That means “it is a possibility that students will have to register as sex offenders,” he said.

Meanwhile, the two New York teenagers have been charged with “disseminating indecent material to minors and promoting a sexual performance by a child,” both of which the state classifies as Class D felonies, ABC News reports. Dozens of students who received the video also have been suspended from school.

Some say such heavy sanctions are necessary in cases where an adult may be involved in sexting minors. But the two incidents this week, along with other cases, have led critics to call for a reevaluation of how states classify and prosecute sexting, especially when consensual, among underage teens.

“The consequences are extreme for sexting, without accounting for the fact that teens might be doing it to one another in a 100 percent consensual way,” says John Grohol, a psychologist who specializes in online health and human behavior and founder of PsychCentral.com. “State legislatures have to revisit that issue with the way some of these laws are written.”

Some also note the importance of communicating to teens the weight of these legal consequences.

“We haven’t done a good job educating kids with the penalties related to sexting,” Ms. Graber says.

It's worth noting that sexting is far from an epidemic among young people. Data around the prevalence of sexting varies, but the numbers tend to be relatively low: one national survey found that only about 7 percent of adolescents said they had received nude or nearly nude images of others. A Texas study found that 28 percent of students in five Houston-area schools had sent naked pictures of themselves to another person via text or e-mail.

In contrast, about 47 percent of high school students in the US have had sexual intercourse, according to a 2013 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But sending out compromising images, even to a known and trusted person, can have lasting consequences for a young person's reputation, and that's an issue that adults closest to teenagers – mostly parents, but also educators – must raise, Dr. Grohol says. 

“Teens are a little naive when it comes to relationships,” he says. “They think that the person they have their trust in isn’t going to violate that trust. [But] you have to keep in mind that these [images] live forever, and can be passed around to people they don’t know.”

Many teens who sext “engage in it because they see it as safer than sex,” Justin Patchin, co-founder of the Cyberbullying Research Center, an online resource for information about the ways adolescents use technology. “They’re just trying to be intimate.”

Sexting, however, is just one part of a broader cultural issue facing US teens today, some experts say. Media and technology increase the risk of exposing kids at an early age to pornography and other imagery that objectifies women, leading to less-than-healthy ideas about sex, says Amy Hasinoff, an associate professor of communication at the University of Colorado Denver and author of the book, “Sexting Panic.”

“At the root of all these problems is that people feel entitled to objectify women and distribute photos of women and girls,” she says. “Parents and schools have a great opportunity to address that.”

Some schools are taking preventive steps. The Los Angeles Unified School District, for instance, in September launched its “Now Matters Later” campaign in an effort to provide students and parents information about the legal and reputational consequences of sexting.

Other institutions have adopted digital literacy courses such as Cyber Civics, which seeks to teach students to use the Internet and mobile tools responsibly and safely.

But one-off programs aren’t enough. Parents especially must engage their children in broader dialogue about appropriate behavior with regards to sex, technology, and how the two intersect – and the sooner the better, says Clayton Cranford, a juvenile investigator at the Orange County Sheriff’s Office and founder of Cyber Safety Cop, an online Internet and social media safety program.

“It needs to be an ongoing conversation,” he says. In his experience, Mr. Cranford notes, most parents who learn their children have participated in sexting are often shocked – and that needs to change.

“If parents do not step in, their kids are going to be exposed to this stuff, even if by accident,” he says.

And it does no good to blame technology.

“Teens are inevitably ... exploring their sexuality,” and it’s natural for them to use the tools at their command to do so, adds PsychCentral’s Dr. Grohol. “It’s up to adults to help them understand the ramifications of these things.”

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