We need to talk about sexting. Again.

I’ve written about sexting before, but it needs to be written about again. And again. In fact, I have been asked a lot about sexting in the past week, in clinic and outside of clinic (likely related to some incidents that are under investigation at an area school).

In Wisconsin, sexting (which includes the sending, receiving, and/or forwarding of sexually explicit messages/images/photos/videos/etc.) falls under the child pornography laws. Under Wisconsin’s child pornography law, it is illegal to possess or view a visual depiction of a child engaged in sexual conduct—including depictions sent via text message. Therefore, teens who sext may face child pornography charges, which may be heard in juvenile court (rather than the adult criminal justice system), where judges have a wider discretion in the kinds of penalties they impose. However, even in juvenile court, a conviction for possessing or viewing child pornography may include a fine of up to $10,000, up to three years and six months in custody, or both. What if the person receiving or forwarded the sext is 18 years or older? An adult who sends a sexually explicit text message image to a child (under 18 years of age) may face felony charges. Adults who possess or view child pornography—including sext messages with sexual images of children— may face child pornography charges with penalties including a fine of up to $100,000, up to 20 years in prison, or both. An adult who texts sexual images—regardless of the age of the people depicted in the image— to a recipient between 13 and 18 years of age (ie an individual in middle school or high school), could face a fine of up to $10,000 up to six years in prison, or both.

Lots of my patients have admitted to being solicited for nude photos. A 2019 study of middle school and high school students throughout the nation showed approximately 14% of middle and high school students had received a sexually explicit image from a boyfriend or girlfriend, while 13.6% said they received such an image from someone who was not a current romantic partner. Overall, studies show that more 25% of youth are receiving sexts. About 11% of students reported sending a sext to a boyfriend or girlfriend. Over 1/3 of the female students who have been asked to send a sext by someone who was not a current romantic partner complied with the request. 12% of teens admit to forwarding a sext to others without consent.

What can we do?  Here are great tips from the Wisconsin Department of Instruction:

  • Clarify your expectations and your family’s values when it comes to sex, relationships and cell phone usage.
  • Discuss what characterizes a healthy relationship. Explain that any person pressuring them to sext isn’t someone they should trust.
  • Explain how quickly information can spread online. Emphasize that once an image is shared, it is out of their control and can stay around forever.
  • Help teens understand the consequences they could face for sending or forwarding images.
  • Talk to teens about the importance of not asking for or forwarding sexts. Make sure they understand that forwarding sexting images is a major violation of trust and explain the risks that it poses to the person in the picture.