Serious talk about sexting

There’s been a huge amount of talk about adolescent sexting recently.  It seems to have suddenly become popular enough – or at least its popularity seems to have sunk into adult awareness enough – to be everywhere all of a sudden.  Parents and interviewers have in the past couple of weeks come out of the woodwork in droves to ask me questions about sexting.  I suspect that all of the sudden interest has come over a recent legal challenge to legally treating teenage sexting behavior in the same way as adult child pornography.

But before we get deeper into the conversation, let’s define sexting.  I’ve found that most people mean one of two things when they use the word, and they are generally not even aware that some people mean the other.  The first, and most basic definition for sexting is: a sexually suggestive or explicit text message.  This understanding can include either text-based messages or sexually suggestive pictures.  The other definition of sexting is limited exclusively to sexually suggestive or explicit pictures.  Most of the legal conversation revolves around sexually suggestive images, but many young people understand sexting to be a broader term.

Here are a few links to catch you up on recent legal conversations about sexting:

Court Says Parents Can Block ‘Sexting’ Cases -This is a short, succinct description in the New York Times of the legal case that is currently gaining attention.

Court Slaps Prosecutor Who Threatened Child-Porn Charges Over ‘Sexting’ – This is a longer, more in-depth description of the events from Wired and includes links to the legal PDF files associated with the case.

Legislators rethinking how to regulate teens and ‘sexting’ – This is a Boston Globe article that includes more examples and background on sexting.

In brief, what’s happening is that teenagers are taking pictures of themselves – sometimes of their genitalia, sometimes partially clothed, apparently sometimes even in a bathing suit – and sending these pictures to friends and boyfriends.  Occasionally an adult will find one of these pictures, and report it to the police.  The young people are occasionally being charged with owning, creating, and distributing child pornography.  The penalties are stiff if convicted.

Clearly, a twelve year old who takes a picture of her breast and texts it to her twelve year old boyfriend is engaging in a very different practice than an adult who takes sexual pictures of a twelve year old and sells them.  But most states do not have a legal way of addressing this difference.  The recent events are slowly moving us towards a legal distinction between these two scenarios, which is great!

However, as a parent, it is particularly important to stay educated and aware of both the trends in teenagers’ activities so you can have full and well-rounded conversations with them and of the ways that these trends interact with the law.  Our legal system can’t move as fast as technology or effectively address the ways teenagers use new media.  Educating young people on the legal implications of their behavior is critical so that they can make more educated and thoughtful decisions about their actions.

You can start this kind of a conversation using one of the linked articles above as a starting point – either read it aloud or just start talking about it.  Talk about the pictures that the three girls took of themselves and whether they sound sexually suggestive or not.  Talk about why the pictures might have been passed around and whether it’s a problem to have these kinds of pictures being passed around.  Ask your daughter or son if she or he knows anyone who has taken pictures like this and passed them around.  Did anything particularly problematic or interesting or troubling happen as a result?

If your teenager has a cell phone or an iTouch with a camera and texting capabilities you need to have this conversation.  Or more to the point, if your teenager has access to a camera and a computer, you need to have this conversation.  Because, while much of the focus on sexting is on text messaging, almost any medium can be used to send sexually explicit language or pictures, from texting to Facebook to paper.  While the combination of portability, a camera, and texting capabilities on cell phones make them particularly easy to use in this way, sexually explicit messages are not limited to cell phones.  This is particularly important to consider as a parent, because conversations around this issue with teenagers needs to address the content of messages – in addition to the medium through which the messages are sent.

I recently joined the Kiwi Commons expert team to consult on media use, sexuality, and teenagers, and last week I did an interview with American Cheerleader Magazine specifically on sexting.  I’m happy to talk with you about sexting in more detail and how you can address it in your home.  Send me an e-mail ( and we’ll set up a time to talk!

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.

1 Comment

  1. You know sexting has gone mainstream when the AARP has an article on it:

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