Teen Sexting: Felony or Juvenile Mistake?

Should teen sexting be outlawed?
The secret life of the American teenager becomes a lot less secret with parental control.
Jul 5, 2011· 3 MIN READ

Sexting is one of the easiest crimes teenagers can commit. It may also be the most common. When surveys are done to estimate how many kids send nude or semi-nude images of themselves to others, numbers range from four to 20 percent.

Sherry Capps Cannon is a former principal and high school administrator who recently graduated from Southern University Law Center in Louisiana. She claims that sexting is more prevalent than people think.

“It’s happening a whole lot more than kids admit, or than anybody actually believes,” she tells TakePart. “It can happen to just about anybody. I personally think it’s pretty widespread.”

As anecdotal evidence, Cannon tells the story of her good friend’s son who is an honors student at a private religious school. “He’s the nicest kid you ever want to meet,” she explains.

When Cannon wrote an article about teen sexting, she gave a copy of it to the boy’s parents, who then decided to start looking into their son’s cell phone activity. Sure enough, they found out that he had been sexting. “They were shocked,” Cannon recalls. “I mean they couldn’t believe it. He is the best kid you ever want to know, and he and his girlfriend were sending very inappropriate pictures to each other.”


Cannon says that sexting is a modern-day version of “show me yours and I’ll show you mine,” something kids have been playing for centuries. But when cell phones and computers are involved, the game takes on a sinister turn. “A picture can be used to bully someone and it can grow,” she warns. “Once it gets on the World Wide Web, it’s there forever. That’s a pretty powerful thing.”

Sexting is also criminal. When minors under the age of 18 send explicit images of themselves, they are manufacturing and distributing child pornography. Many states don’t have separate laws to address sexting, so kids who participate risk felony pornography charges, jail time, and being branded sexual offenders.

This year, 21 state legislatures are considering bills to reduce penalties for teen sexting, downgrading it from a felony to a juvenile offense.

For instance, California lawmakers want teen sexters to be expelled from school. Florida lawmakers vote to punish sexting with a $60 fine and community service. In New York, judges may soon be able to send teen offenders to counseling instead of jail if prosecutors agree they meant no harm.

“I think the intent of the transmitter needs to come into the legislation,” Cannon tells TakePart. “If you have two teenagers who are just sending inappropriate pictures to each other, that’s one thing. But if you have a kid who receives a photo, and then maliciously sends it to hurt someone, I think that has to be treated in a different way. There are lots of kids who are being bullied by the sending of photos. It almost amounts to teenage extortion. A lot of kids who don’t know how to handle this end up becoming depressed. Some even commit suicide. I think the potential impact is incredible.”

Cannon sees sexting as being “hand in glove” with cyberbullying and other issues that arise when teens use technology inappropriately. She suggests that it might be time for a federal statute to bring some uniformity to this area, which is likely going to continue to grow in the future.


Experts say that parents have a significant role to play in putting a stop to sexting, and Cannon agrees.

“I think parents have to be very involved,” she says. “I think they should have a very frank talk with children to let them know that it’s against the law, and once it’s out there, it’s out there forever. It could come back to haunt you. Minors need to know that parents are going to be very watchful of what goes on, and that they’re going to monitor cell phone use.”

One of Cannon’s colleagues confessed that after catching her own teenage daughter texting at 2 o’clock in the morning, she made a new rule: all cell phones have to be brought to a central location at night and are not allowed to stay in children’s bedrooms.

“It almost takes on a life of its own if you don’t put some sort of control on it,” says Cannon. “Along with the ownership of a telephone comes certain responsibilities. The potential is there for a lot of abuse. I think parents need to recognize that they can control what their children do to a certain extent, and they have to exercise that authority over their kids. Kids need to know that they’re being watched.”

Cannon adds that teenagers are not the only ones who need guidance. She’s seen children as young as eight years old with cell phones—not to mention adults in the news who “don’t know how to handle it properly.”

“I think this issue covers the gamut from adults down to even preteens,” she explains. “I think the laws are going to evolve as this problem continues to evolve.”

Photo: GoodNCrazy/Creative Commons via Flickr.