20 year ago, some teens were always trying to get sex - and they talked about it. But their behavior was not stored in an NSA database somewhere.

If it were stored with the IRS, such discussions might be safe because they could be lost with a Nixon-ian phone call or two, but otherwise someone can find out about sexy talk in the modern age - "sexting". A new psychology paper surveyed college students (naturally) and found that more than 50 percent of those surveyed reported that they had exchanged sexually explicit text messages, with or without photographic images, as minors.

The study also found that the majority of young people are not aware of the legal ramifications of underage sexting. In fact, most respondents were unaware that many jurisdictions consider sexting among minors  to be child pornography, a prosecutable offense. Convictions of these offenses carry steep punishments, including jail time and sex offender registration.

20 years ago, this was just a young guy trying to get laid. In the modern world, where underage people can't say such things to underage people, it could mean jail. And jail is not as much fun as "Orange Is The New Black" makes it seem. Courtesy of Drexel University.

"This is a scary and disturbing combination," said researcher David DeMatteo, JD, PhD,  an associate professor of psychology and law
at Drexel. "Given the harsh legal penalties sometimes associated with youth sexting and the apparent frequency with which youth are engaging in it, the lack of comprehension regarding such penalties poses a significant problem."   

The study, in which undergraduate students from a large northeastern university completed an anonymous online survey concerning their engagement in sexting as minors, revealed a significant relationship between awareness of legal consequences and sexting behavior as minors.

Those who were aware of the potential legal consequences reported sexting as a minor significantly less than those who were not aware of the legal consequences. Additionally, most respondents who reported being unaware of the potential legal consequences of sexting expressed the belief that they may have been deterred from sexting as a minor if they had known.

The finding that legal consequences may deter youth from sexting has important policy implications, according to the researchers.

In many jurisdictions, the law has yet to catch up with youth sexting behavior and technological advances. Until recently, most states did not have a legal mechanism in place to handle cases of teenage sexting. Instead, they were required to fit this new teenage subculture into the existing legal framework. As a result, youth sexting was often subsumed under laws governing serious child pornography and child exploitation offenses. Convictions of these offenses carry steep punishments, including jail time and sex offender registration—punishments that many lawyers and legislatures have deemed too harsh for adolescent sexting.

While many states have joined the movement toward creating youth sexting legislation, there is currently no federal sexting-specific legislation in the United States.

"It's a major concern that many states do not have laws that specifically address sexting," said DeMatteo. "Sexting specific laws would be beneficial because they – ideally – would clearly define what constitutes sexting and outline potential penalties. To the latter point, these laws would make it possible for judges to avoid imposing overly harsh sentences on those who are prosecuted under sexting laws."

The rapidly changing legal landscape further underscores the need to educate youth about current sexting laws. According to the researchers, an important step in addressing this issue would be to develop educational initiatives aimed at providing basic information to youth about legal consequences of sexting and other negative consequences such as humiliation, a tarnished reputation and bullying/taunting.

"Young people need to be educated about the potential consequences of sexting—legal, social and psychological," DeMatteo said. "The education should come from many sources – the more young people hear the message, the more likely it will be to sink in – so they should be educated by their parents, schools and perhaps even law enforcement."

The study also examined motivations for sexting, the frequency respondents engaged in this behavior, the number of partners with whom they exchanged sexts, gender differences with regard to sexting and opinions about what appropriate consequences should be for engaging in illegal forms of this behavior.

Article:  "Youth Sexting: Prevalence Rates, Driving Motivations, and the Deterrent Effect of Legal Consequences," Sexuality Research and Social Policy.
Source: Drexel University