Don't take or send nude or sexually suggestive photos of yourself or anyone else. If you do, even if they're of you or you pass along someone else's - you could be charged with producing or distributing child sexual abuse imagery. If you keep them on your phone or computer you could be charged with possession. If they go to someone in another state (and that happens really easily), it's a federal felony.
Then there's the emotional (and reputation) damage that can come from having intimate photos of yourself go to a friend who can become an ex-friend and send it to everyone you know. Not only can they be sent around; they can be distributed and archived online for people to search for pretty much forever.
Not just on phones
Sexting can be done on any media-sharing device or technology - including email and the Web. Teens have been convicted of distribution of child sexual abuse imagery for emailing sexually explicit photos to each other.
In some cases, kids are responding to peer pressure in a form of cyberbullying or pressure from a boyfriend or girlfriend (they break up, and sometimes those photos get sent around out of revenge). Sometimes it's impulsive behavior, flirting, or even blackmail. It's always a bad idea.
The bottom line
Stay alert when using digital media. People aren't always who they seem to be, even in real life, and sometimes they change and do mean things. Critical thinking about what we upload as well as download is the best protection.
What to do
We're not in a position to provide legal advice, but we can tell you that laws vary from state to state, each jurisdiction enforces the law differently, and the applicable laws were written before sexting was "invented." With sexting, the same minor can be both perpetrator and victim when producing and sending photos of him or herself - a very tricky situation under current laws.
Some Tips for Teens
- If a sexting photo arrives on your phone, first, do not send it to anyone else (that could be considered distribution of child sexual abuse imagery). Second: Talk to a parent or trusted adult. Tell them the full story so they know how to support you. And don't freak out if that adult decides to talk with the parents of others involved - that could be the best way to keep all of you from getting into serious trouble.
- If the picture is from a friend or someone you know, then someone needs to talk to that friend so he or she knows sexting is against the law. You're actually doing the friend a big favor because of the serious trouble that can happen if the police get involved.
- If the photos keep coming, you and a parent might have to speak with your friend's parents, school authorities or the police.