Are parents legally responsible when their teens engage in sexting?

Michael RichMedia expert Michael Rich, MD, MPH, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston, answers your questions about media use. Last week, he discussed whether or not vampire fiction can contribute to a child’s anxiety.

Here’s this week’s question:

Q: I just recently found some sexual pictures in my son’s phone and I am totally shocked and scared. I do not know what to do and if I should tell his girlfriend’s parents or not. Is this a crime punishable to the parents of these “sexting” teens?
-Asked by Trish on Education.com’s JustAsk forum, after reading the article Is Your Child Sexting? What Parents Need to Know

A: Dear Trish,

When you think about it, sexting (sexual content + text messaging) is the perfect storm for teens: Start with the fact that they’re at the peak of sexual urges and curiosity, then combine it with their tremendous love of media and ease with technology. If that weren’t enough, you can add parents who are often uninterested in how media work, plus the fact that teens have not fully developed the area of the brain that lets them think through future consequences.

From a developmental perspective, exploring sexual expression is normal behavior for teens, regardless of whether adults approve of how, when, and where they choose to do so. However, the Digital Age has raised new concerns about these expressions. In the past, a printed photograph could be given to a love interest in relative privacy. Even if the photograph was passed around between friends, the print could eventually be destroyed. With today’s digital pictures and messaging, however, sexual photos and texts can spread to many more people much more rapidly, and since each person owns a copy of the file after they receive it, there is no good way to make sure that all copies are destroyed.

This has unexpected legal (and social) implications. Most of the laws about child pornography were established before the Internet became widely used, and certainly before sexting existed. In many states, your son, the girl in question, and anyone else connected to those images could be subject to prosecution under child porn charges, which could mean ending up as registered sex offenders—which sticks for a long time. Ironically, the laws that were created to protect children from being victimized by pornography are being used to convict children, who, in many ways, are doing what kids have always done.

Given all of these factors, do everything in your power to keep this out of the legal system and within the context of your family and the family of the girl in question. First, talk to your son. Avoid making this a moral question—this is not about whether he’s a good kid or not. You could say, for example, “We can deal with the issues of whether this was a good decision later, but right now, we need to talk about how to clean this up.” Then you should think about talking to the young woman and her parents, stressing that your concern is for her safety. Then, if necessary, consult an attorney about how the laws work where you live.

Ideally, prevention is the most effective approach. I encourage parents to really think through the implications of giving a child a cell phone, just as they would think through the implications of letting a child drive: he first needs to learn to use the tool safely. And that’s probably why you got him a phone in the first place—to keep him safe. To maintain that safety, start having clear, open discussions about what the phone will be used for as you move forward, who pays for it, and when and if you as a parent will have access to it. This is not to check up on him but rather to make the point that what’s on that phone is not, as he has now discovered, truly private.

See below for an MTV presentation on the consequences of sexting:

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,
The Mediatrician

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