Should teen sexting be outlawed?

Should teen sexting be outlawed? May 24, 2016

th-1Should teen sexting be outlawed? Or should it be a slap on the wrist with more counseling given and mandatory parental education plans? What role should schools and churches play in this? I ask because I deal with sexting everyday of my life. I am the Dean of Students at a very large suburban high school: 2,000 plus students that is not located in Utah. Less then 10% of the student of the student population is mormon. That does not matter at all, just want to give you some background. Weekly, I get text tips through the sheriffs department that my students are sharing nude pictures of themselves with other students. The protocol is to take the phone and put it on airplane mode and then turn it into the school resource officer. Then an investigation takes place to see if these nude images are being passed on to 3rd or 4th parties. If they have then there are charges. If the images are just shared between 2 people the phones are given back to the parents. This process consumes 85% of my days. Part of me wants to completely ignore the issue, because kids will be kids. Is it really that big of a deal? I am sick and tired of confiscating phones and turning them over to the police. The SRO said that the District Attorney is so slammed with cases of teens (9th and 10th graders) sharing nude pics and sexting that they are starting to do nothing unless the images are passed multiple times or actually shows sex acts. 

These are really tough questions for a variety of reasons.

What are the legal implications? Especially since they vary from state to state. And it behooves us as parents and educators to know what the laws are surrounding this issue where we live. Some states are quite rigid and treat any photographs of minors as child pornography with the legal consequences involving not only minors but possibly parents (especially if the images are found on a home computer that adults had access to).

What are the educational implications? Each school develops its own policies. And what are the laws and policies in regards to informing parents when these things happen at school?

Even if we don’t agree with the laws, rules and/or policies that are in place, it doesn’t mean we don’t have to follow them – especially when it comes to minors. My personal opinion is that criminalizing sexual activity between teens with a broad brush is not a sustainable or even common-sense approach. However, laws are laws – and in many places, they are already in place.

Yes, kids will be kids – in the sense that this developmental stage entails a certain amount of  sexual curiosity, impulsivity, etc. Therefore, sexting is a common practice these days. It’s the new format of the old “I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours” scenario. At the same time that doesn’t mean that we take an “anything goes” policy. Teens need vast amounts of education, guidance and safe spaces to explore their own feelings/thoughts with the mentoring adults in their lives. They especially need a lot of education on consent. Many of them are acting from places of wanting to be liked, wanting to be accepted or appear cool. So, even though they may be officially consenting, what type of consent quality exists if it’s coming from a  place of wanting to impress, fit in, or please others? And consent goes both ways – the sender and receiver of such photos. And as you mentioned, pictures are easily shared and can be used to bully or coerce once they are “out there.”

Although consequences may include electronic devices being removed for a certain period of time (such as in a “grounding” scenario), technology is continually advancing and we need to help our children develop healthy relationships with these things, rather than try to block them from usage (an impossibility in this day and age). And no amount of filters or safeguards will completely protect teens because there are too many places where they can gain access where parents have little to no control (I’m not saying to not use parental filters, rather have realistic expectations of what filters can accomplish). Rather than try to control teen sexuality, I would rather the focus be on common-sense, comprehensive sexual education and the creation of safe spaces in schools, churches and family settings where topics can be addressed directly and in a way that honors our teens’ perspectives and experiences. Less focus on shame or discipline – more focus on information and support.

I would hope that there could be a matter-of-fact, yet respectful way to discuss things like:

  • we know this is what happened…
  • you are in the process of becoming a sexual adult…
  • how do you feel about that?
  • how do you feel about us or others knowing about this scenario?
  • how do you feel about what happened after the fact?
  • would you do it again?
  • are there safer ways for you to be sexual than in a public sphere?
  • does that matter to you or not?
  • was there pressure to do what you did (either direct or indirect) – or do you feel that’s something you really wanted to try and do, etc.
  • did the person you sent these pictures to want you to engage with them in this manner?
  • did you pressure someone to send you pictures?
  • what are your thoughts about being a sexually responsible person?

The question for us as parents and educators is how do we tolerate teen sexual exploration in a way that reduces shame, offers education and support, and balances concepts like consequences (real life), pleasure, and developing good judgment. Can we listen to the answers our children might offer us, without getting into defensive or lecturing modes (in essence shutting down the conversation)? Can we manage our own anxiety? Understanding that these things usually evolve over time and that mistakes are often made, can help us keep our cool in times when our teens need us most.

I would love to hear from readers as to how these types of issues are dealt with in your geographical areas either legally or educationally, and how you might have dealt with similar situations with teens in your own lives.

Natasha Helfer Parker, LCMFT, CST can be reached at She authors the Mormon Therapist Blog, hosts the Mormon Mental Health and Mormon Sex Info Podcasts, writes a regular column for Sunstone Magazine and is the current president of the Mormon Mental Health Association. She has 20 years of experience working with primarily an LDS/Mormon clientele.

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