Sexting: the giving and/or receiving of sexually suggestive or explicit images of yourself (Ricketts, 2015, p.270). Sounds like a bit of fun no? Well its all fun and games until someone’s icloud gets hacked and suddenly your innocent nude selfies are on perezhilton.com. The way in which young people have integrated online and digital technology into their personal relationships and sexual development is an important emerging issue for researchers and policymakers, and created much anxiety about the use of social media for these activities (Lee 2015, pp.1).
Where this behavior is most problematic is when young people are creating and distributing this kind of digital content, and what is an innocent exploration of sexuality ends up colliding with child pornography laws. Under current legislation in many jurisdictions across Australia young people between 16 and 18 years can have consensual sex, but if they send an explicit photo to their partner they may fall foul of child pornography or child abuse material laws. The tough laws that are in place to protect children from predators and regulate teen sexuality have now ‘created an environment where young people can be criminalised for essentially ‘consensual’ sexting.’ (Lee 2015, p.7). A recent survey commissioned by the Australian government of over 2000 teenage respondents- half reported having sent a sexual picture of themselves, two-thirds had received a image- and this practice was prevalent in all age groups- particularly with 13-15 year olds (Lee, 2015, p.3)
The legal consequences for youth who willingly send nude or semi-nude images of themselves to one another could be viewed as falling outside the scope or ‘spirit’ of child pornography laws. Police and prosecutor discretion presently appears to keep most, but not all, young people involved in consensual sexting out of the criminal justice system (Ricketts, 2015 p.217, Lee 2015, p.8).
So where does that leaves us? Rollins states that technological advancements always precipitate social anxiety and new modes of legal regulation (2015, p.57). He suggests that we must remain vigilant to the ways that Internet communication technologies are ‘simultaneously changing and maintaining sexual and gender mores amongst children and young adults’ (2015, p.69). Law, policy, and culture must adapt—and quickly—by developing a way to regulate the tension between being able to prevent stigmatizing young teens exploring their sexuality as sex offenders, whilst protecting their vulnerability at the same time (Rollins, 2015, p.609).
Lee, M, Crofts, T, McGovern, A, & Milivojevic, S 2015, ‘Sexting among young people: Perceptions and practices’, Trends & Issues in Crime & Criminal Justice, no. 508, pp. 1-9.
Mostrous, A and Rigby, E 2016 ‘Schools hit by Sexting Epidemic’ Times UK, 12 March, viewed 13th March, <http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/education/article4711540.ece>
Ricketts, M, Maloney, C, Marcum, C, & Higgins, G 2015, ‘The Effect of Internet Related Problems on the Sexting Behaviors of Juveniles’, American Journal of Criminal Justice, vol. 40, no. 2, pp. 270-284.
Rollins, J 2015, ‘Sexting Cyberchildren: Gender, Sexuality, and Childhood in Social Media and Law’, Sexuality & Culture, vol. 19, no. 1, pp. 57-71.