Sexting has become very popular among teenagers and even tweens. In a 2014 study by Drexel University in Philadelphia, they reported that more than half of the undergraduate students had sent sexually charged messages to another person. Bear in mind, that only reports how many students admitted to doing it, so the number is probably even higher than what Drexel identified.

If you’re like me, you have no concerns what consenting adults do, but sexting is being done by younger and younger participants. As a cybersafety advocate, I work to help keep our kids safe from the potential risks associated with it. I recently spent an entire day at a middle school, presenting to the students and working one on one with teachers who often have to deal with the aftermath, including cyberbullying, revenge porn and shaming. This was done because the school’s principal was concerned after several incidents involving sexting which included inappropriate images.

If that isn’t bad enough, another school district in my county sent a notice home to all parents of its elementary school children this year because they were seeing more instances of sexting among grade schoolers, sometimes with intimate images. Those schools went up to grade six, so the typical age of the oldest students was about twelve.

In the letter to parents, the district says, “We see the frequency of these issues increasing and as a result we are concerned, not only for the educational implication, but also for the emotional and social wellbeing of our students.”

They have reason to be concerned. Just a few years ago, a third grader at my own daughter’s school announced that she posted “inappropriate” pictures of herself on Instagram. It turned out that the girl was making it up, possibly to get attention. Still, I will not be surprised to find out that she does it for real at some point, if she hasn’t by now.

This is a serious issue, because the repercussions of sexting, both from a legal perspective and a personal point of view can be long term and devastating. In the Drexel University study, for example, 61% of those surveyed were not aware that what they were doing could legally be considered child pornography if one of the people involved was a minor.

Legal Issues

Child pornography laws, like many other types of laws, are frequently behind the times. Technology has advanced so rapidly that many of the laws on the books originated when the only way to get pictures developed was by using a 35mm camera in a dark room. If you don’t know what I’m referring to, that just proves my point about how times have changed because of technology. Now, images get printed at home or simply saved on a phone.

Laws covering sexting vary greatly, even within a relatively small geographical area. For that reason, I am avoiding getting into specifics for local jurisdictions.

Legal Issues in Canada

The latest revision to Canadian criminal law, enacted just this month, defines a punishable offense for adults when someone distributes an image without the consent of the person in the image and meets any of the following criteria:

a) The person is in a place in which a person can reasonably be expected to be nude, to expose his or her genital organs or anal region or her breasts, or to be engaged in explicit sexual activity;

b) The person is nude, is exposing his or her genital organs or anal region or her breasts, or is engaged in explicit sexual activity, and the observation or recording is done for the purpose of observing or recording a person in such a state or engaged in such an activity; or

c) The observation or recording is done for a sexual purpose.

Anyone convicted of such an offense could serve up to five years in prison. Bear in mind that this is per offense, so sending multiple images could dramatically increase the time of incarceration.

Juveniles have different criteria to consider. The laws are very different and in some ways, more lenient, so long as everyone involved is under the age of 18. In other ways, the laws are tougher, making it illegal to view, keep, make, post or send such images. This means that minors should not send selfies of themselves to anyone. There are exceptions when a minor creates such an image for personal use only or for another minor who is close to their own age and also meets other criteria.

Legal Issues in the U.S.A.

Another problem with the laws in this area is that it tends to be very absolute, very black and white, with no discretionary provisions for prosecutors and judges. Take for example, the latest bill proposed by the U.S. House, H.R. 1761, officially known as the “Protecting Against Child Exploitation Act of 2017.”

This bill advanced through the U.S. House by a vote of 368-51. While well meaning, it is overly aggressive in how it treats the problem. Under the current wording, if a teenager even asks another teenager for a picture with nudity, it would result in a mandatory sentencing of at least 15 years for the first offense. And while federal prisoners may earn time off for good behavior, there is no such thing as parole for federal inmates.

Once convicted of distributing child pornography, inmates run a legitimate risk of being attacked by other inmates. Crimes involving children are seen as being the worst, even among hardened criminals, who may not know the full story about why someone is in prison; just that they committed a crime involving children.

After leaving prison and paying any fines resulting from their conviction, legal consequences often continue to haunt them. Many convicted of child pornography laws in the U.S. are required to register on the sex offenders list for many years, perhaps for the rest of their life. This prohibits them from getting certain jobs, limits where they can live and more. Some municipalities, such as Philadelphia, have outlawed asking job seekers about any past criminal records until a tentative offer of employment is made. However, if someone has a felony conviction because of sexting with their romantic partner on their record and has to indicate it on a job application, it could prevent them from even being considered for any job.

Long term ramifications from being on the sex-offenders list also include not being able to apply for certain jobs, teaching, for example, or being able to live near a school, playground or park. It may also require them to regularly check in with their local police and their Internet service provider. All because they sent a selfie to their boyfriend or girlfriend.

Consider too, that unless two people are born on the exact same day, at one point, one of them is going to reach the age of 18 while the other will still be a minor. Imagine now, if the parents of the minor do not like the person that their child is dating. Once they find out that they have been sending or receiving pictures of a sexual nature with their child, they report them to the police. Even under current laws, the 18-year-old could be looking at some serious legal problems.

Personal Issues

As bad as the legal issues might be, they can pale by comparison to the personal issues.

No matter how the picture gets shared, once it happens, it’s virtually impossible to stop it from spreading farther. Considering that many people involved in a relationship, especially minors, typically have the same circle of friends, it is likely that everyone they know will see the picture eventually. That can lead to the picture eventually being seen my school officials and parents.

Not everyone will share the image if they get it, but some people will share it with more than one person. If we assume that each person will share it with only one other person, after only six shares, the image will be seen by more than 30 people. After that, it starts to skyrocket, as shown below. The timeframe for this to happen is not days, perhaps not even hours, but minutes!

Once an image gets out to others, it opens the flood gates to other risks. Ridicule by others, including classmates is very common. This in turn, often leads to cyberbullying, physical and emotional abuse and more. As a result, the person who sent the selfie of themselves often gets depressed. Self-abuse and even suicide are sometimes the result. As of 2014, the most recent year that figures are available, the U.S. Center for Disease Control reports that adolescents (10-14 years old) are more likely to die from suicide than from a traffic accident. How many of them do you think are a result of cyberbullying, maybe resulting from sexting?

The darkest side of sexting involves sextortion – the blackmailing of one person to send pictures of a sexual nature. This often starts with one person sending a racy picture to someone that they know, or think they know. Then it spirals out of control, quickly! Amanda Todd was a teenager from British Columbia, Canada, until she committed suicide at the age of 14 after falling victim to sextortion. After sending a topless picture to someone online, he used it as leverage to get more pictures from her. When she finally refused, he sent images to kids at her school to punish her.

The Four Ps of Social Media

There’s an old saying that, “if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong.” While that may be a pessimistic attitude, it has real meaning when it comes to sexting. Whenever you do anything online, whether it be sending a racy picture to someone or badmouthing (cyberbullying) another person, consider what might happen if that were seen by one of the Four Ps, as I like to call them:

  • Parents
  • Principal
  • Police
  • Predator

If there is one person that you wouldn’t want to see your posting, you have to be prepared for it to happen. Expect it, even. In the video below, a boy asks his girlfriend for a sexy picture and she does it. When the image gets shared, it is seen by plenty of people. Near the end of the video, it gets seen by a boy, who based on his reaction, might be her brother. Immediately after that is a woman, maybe her mom. You make up your own mind about the man after her who sees the picture.

I deliberately ordered the Four Ps above for a reason; based on who care about the minors. Obviously, the parents are concerned the most, but in today’s world of social media and reality television, texting and sexting are seen as part of the norm. Teens don’t see things the same way that their parents do.

Related to principals are colleges and other post-high school educational institutions. Imagine how well colleges would react to seeing a felony conviction involving child pornography on an applicant’s record. More than a third of all school admissions’ officers look for an applicant’s Digital Footprint when making a decision. Since I consider it unlikely that many at the community college level are doing so, that means that it’s the more competitive, prestigious schools who are looking for it. Earlier this year, Harvard declined acceptance to more than 10 applicants because of what they found online on the applicants’ own social media accounts.

The decision to send sexually related images, even for adults is not to be taken lightly. The Internet has a very long memory and once images get out, it is virtually impossible to get rid of them. Consider it the tattoo that never goes away.

About the Author

Joe Yeager is the founder of Safety Net of PA, LLC, which works with schools and community groups to help keep families safe online. His work on cybersafety has been published by the Family Online Safety Institute, the Social Media Club, Calkins Media and more. For more information, visit his website: