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Trouble at teens' fingertips: Youth sexting and the law

The last decade has seen a rapid increase in the use of smartphones among young children and adolescents. One consequence of this phenomenon is sexting. Although researchers of sexting have yet to arrive at a single, cohesive definition for the behavior, it generally involves the transmission of text, pictures, or videos containing sexual material. Different definitions of the behavior have led to widely varying estimates of its prevalence, although some studies have documented relatively high rates of sexting among teenagers. As adolescence is the time period in people's lives where the psychological tasks of identity consolidation and the development of intimate relationships become primary, it is not surprising that many teens utilize sexting as one way of practicing skills associated with successful completion of these tasks. The criminal prosecution of sexting cases, then, raises many legal and ethical questions. Offenders may be prosecuted under state or federal child pornography laws or state‐specific sexting laws. Sexting laws, particularly in instances of consensual sext exchange, call into question who they are meant to protect and from what. In this article we review the research on teen sexting, its prevalence, and its association with mental health problems; summarize legal responses to the behavior in the United States; and identify considerations for prosecutors and legal decision‐makers facing sexting cases.

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