Sexting is a relatively new and complex social phenomenon that has come with the rise of technology. It involves the complex and still maturing brains of preteens and adolescents, as well as the brains of those who create the typically rigid laws of the criminal justice system. This mix can make for unprecedented consequences not only socially, but legally for young children. Perhaps instead of criminalizing sex and sexual behaviors in this manner, it should be understood that intent matters within the context of the law.

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This paper will explain the psychological, social and legal consequences of a new and difficult phenomenon that has collided with the law in terms of child pornography creation, distribution and possession. Having the titled of “sex offender” carry the same weight for teenagers who send and receive sexually charged messaging goes against what those laws were originally intended to do and punish. It will take a change in viewpoint of the sexual behavior of adolescents as a normal part of sexual development to understand the nuance of sexting.

The act of “sexting,” a portmanteau of “sex” and “texting,” is an umbrella concept that refers to the creation and distribution of sex-related and sexually charged material through digital channels. Sexting is a modern dilemma that has risen as a result of the rise of technology and social media platforms. According to a new study in the JAMA Pediatrics journal, there has been an increase in sexting since 2008, especially in young people due to rapid access to cell phones. The advent of sexting has presented a new way in which young people sexually experiment and engage in sexual behavior, as is normal for childhood and adolescent development. Experimenting sexually is inherent to the sexual development of any person, but the concept of sexting has brought about a new conflict that entails the simultaneous ephemerality and permanence of the Internet, child pornography and child sexual abuse, as well as the effects of sending a momentary and temporary picture or text that can last a lifetime. Sexting involves law enforcement and criminal justice, as in some states, the creation of such material is punishable by law. However, it can appear that the advent of technology and its place in society and the archaic criminal justice system are at odds, making for a complex concept in this technological and digital world.

The study in the JAMA Pediatrics journal shows that preteens and teenagers are particularly vulnerable when it comes to sexting. Psychologically speaking, the young and adolescent brain is susceptible to risk taking and is evolving in regard to emotional development. It has been often said and shown by research that the young brain is continually evolving and does not stop until around the age of 25 years old. The frontal lobe of the brain allows an individual to evaluate the consequences of their behaviors and develops connections to other areas of the brain that control and regulate experiences and the resulting emotions. Referred to as the “inhibition center” of the brain, the area does not fully develop and mature until the mid-20s, which explains the immaturity and risk-taking behaviors that are characteristic to indecisive and emotional adolescents (Anderson, 2011).

This is not to say that adolescents are completely incapable of making decisions, but their simultaneously limited and developing brains do inhibit the ability to make healthy decisions or to realize the consequences of their “bad’ decisions. In addition to being somewhat unable to realize the consequences of their actions, the JAMA Pediatrics journal notes that relationships among “tweens” are short lived, which makes them susceptible to having sexts and pictures forwarded without their consent to get back at a person, which is known as “revenge porn” or “sextortion.” This, in conjunction with the increased and rapid availability and ownership of smartphones among young adults, the danger in this issue arises. The psychological and mental consequences of having privacy violated in such a way can irreparably damage the young and fragile mind of adolescents, in addition to the reality that the sending of sexual images can be in response to a need for popularity or approval in a platonic or social context. A study from the Education Development Center found that high school students who engage in sexting are more likely to have symptoms of depression, likely within the context of peer pressure and cyber bullying. The consequences of sexting come with the betrayal and shame of the actions resulting from being sexually naïve. In most cases, they have a greater impact on girls than boys, whose bodies are often up for more discussion and objection because of societal expectations of girls and women.

There is also the issue of the “criminal” nature of sexting that, as a modern crime, can have unintended, unexpected and life-ruining consequences from a legal perspective. In this present world, sexting is a new phenomenon that has had the criminal justice system on its heels to address a change in society and culture driven by technology and the digital world. Many state legislatures have introduced anti-sexting laws that criminalize the activity, citing that it is a form of child pornography. Although it is generally legal for consenting adults who are of age, for preteens and teenagers who are under the age of consent, they can face both state and federal charges of child pornography production and distribution regardless of consent and intent. In 2016-2017, more than 6,000 offenses involving young people under 18 years old were recorded by the police as the production, distribution and/or possession of indecent images of children” on account of Outcome 21, a United Kingdom based legislation that was meant to be a form of guidance for police (McManus & Almond, 2018).

Not only do children face the consequences of public embarrassment and social ostracism, it is possible that the legal consequences of their actions will loom on their police records and over their head for the rest of their lives. The legal caveat with criminalizing sexting is that professionals, academics and citizens alike find that regarding it under the umbrella of child pornography is “extreme” and “too harsh” compared to the original intent of those laws, as well as that of cyber crimes. For example, two teenagers who are in a relationship (or not) sharing sexual images of each other consensually does not carry the same weight as child pornography that puts unwilling and non-knowledgeable children at risk for abuse and exploitation. These arguments are grounded in the reasoning that sexting itself is done, most often, for pleasure which is a normal part of relationships, even for those under the age of consent. The taking and sending of a naked picture does not pose a threat to a community as would a child molester, but the branding of “sex offender” on a person’s record would carry equal meaning for two incredibly different offenses. If sexting was viewed as a form of media production and a natural, although dangerous, way that children and adolescents explore their sexuality in a consensual manner, the legal assumption of what sexting is could be changed and reduce the culpability of youth who are not acting out of malicious, abusive and exploitative intent.

Sexting is a relatively new and phenomenon in society that has brought about legal and social issues that are in the public eye today.. It involves the complex and still maturing brains of preteens and adolescents, as well as the brains of those who create the typically rigid laws of the criminal justice system. This mix can make for unprecedented consequences not only socially, but legally for young children.