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Is Sexting Illegal for Teens?

By Jordan Walker, J.D. | Last updated on

Did you know that teenagers could be committing a crime based on the messages they send and receive on their cell phones? Text messages, DM's, Snapchats, and other electronic messages can violate state criminal laws if they contain sexual messages, images, or videos.

But what if you only send nude photos to someone you're in a relationship with? Or what if you receive sexts or explicit photos that you didn't want? (We all probably know that certain someone we're not trying to see naked).

All states have laws prohibiting minors from sending or receiving sexual images of a minor, which means both you or another minor. Some states even have laws making sexting illegal. So before you hit “send" on that flirty selfie, make sure you're not committing a crime.

Learn more about sexting and the law in a comic from FindLaw below:

What Is Sexting?

Sexting is a clever term derived from combining the words “sex" and “texting" and involves sending nude images or suggestive material via your cell phone. It can be text- or image-based.

Sexting isn't always illegal. Consenting adults can generally exchange sexually explicit images and messages without committing a sex crime. However, teen sexting that includes minors can be a state or federal crime. It may even violate child pornography laws.

Sexting Laws

More and more states are enacting specific laws for underage sexting. Most states with sexting laws treat sexting as a misdemeanor criminal offense. A minor commits the act of sexting if they knowingly use a computer or electronic device to send photos that show nudity.

States without specific sexting laws may charge minors with possession of sexually explicit digital material. To prove this, a prosecutor must prove that you knowingly used an electronic device or digital media to:

  • Create
  • Send
  • Transmit
  • Post
  • Share
  • Possess

Any photograph, digital image, or visual depiction of nudity or a sexual act. To defend against these charges, your criminal defense attorney would need to argue that you:

  • Did not request the digital content
  • Took reasonable steps to report the content to the appropriate authorities
  • Did not further share or distribute the content

Some states allow teens charged with sexting to participate in remedial education and counseling offered by the juvenile court. This is offered as an alternative to criminal prosecution.

When Is Sexting Child Pornography?

Possessing, producing, and/or distributing visual depictions of sexually explicit conduct involving a minor may fall under federal and state possession of child pornography laws. Punishment can include fines and jail time, not just community service. We shouldn't need to repeat ourselves so frequently, but child pornography charges are extremely serious.

In some cases, those found guilty of violating child pornography laws may even have to register as a sex offender. This is essentially an extra punishment that will follow you long after you complete your sentence, because it is very hard to get your name removed from the registry.

Does Social Media Count?

Disappearing chats offered by services like Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook seem to make sexting effortless and are popular among teens. Users can enable “Vanish Mode" to automatically delete messages once your recipient looks at them. Seems like the perfect sexting scenario.

Don't strike a pose yet. All it takes is a screenshot to permanently capture any message or photo, even if it's sent in vanish mode. Additionally, if you hold onto these images and share them after you break up with your partner, you could run afoul of revenge porn laws. So always think before you send!

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