Teen Sexting Laws and Penalties

Learn the details about teen sexting laws and penalties.

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Updated by Rebecca Pirius, Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated December 12, 2022

"Sexting" refers to the sending and receiving of sexually explicit or nude images through texting, social media, messaging, email, or other electronic means.

Some states have adopted laws that prescribe penalties aimed specifically at teenagers or adolescents who send such images. These laws make the penalties for teen sexting less severe than if an adult would send similar photos to an underage person. But not all states have adopted such measures. In these states, teens and adults alike can face serious charges (often felonies) for child pornography or unlawful dissemination of harmful materials to minors.

To get state-specific details regarding sexting, jump ahead to teen sexting laws by state.

Teen Sexting Laws

The states that have adopted teen sexting laws target sexually explicit images sent by or between teenagers. However, state laws differ significantly. Some provide lower penalties when sexting occurs between teens. Others offer defenses or diversion options for teens. Below are some examples.

Teen Sexting Penalties

  • Louisiana prohibits anyone under the age of 17 from sending or keeping explicit photographs. Teens who sext images of themselves (selfies) go through child protection, and separate penalties apply for teens who possess or share another's image.
  • New York didn't enact teen sexting laws. Rather, it created a diversion program that allows a court to divert the case out of the criminal justice system. Teens who successfully complete an education program and any other diversion requirements can get the charges dismissed.
  • Texas prohibits teen sexting under a separate law that imposes misdemeanor penalties (rather than felony penalties). The law also offers a limited defense to charges for dating teens who are no more than two years apart in age.

Receiving an Unwanted Sext

Teen sexting laws prohibit both sending and receiving explicit images. However, it isn't really possible to prevent someone else from sending you a photo. Because of that, sexting laws typically prohibit "receiving and keeping" any explicit images.

If, for example, a teen receives an explicit or pornographic image from someone else, the teen hasn't violated a sexting law unless the teen chooses to keep the image. It may also be enough to avoid a sexting conviction if the person receiving the message tried to delete it but was unable to. For instance, it's a complete defense in Texas if a teen receives an unsolicited sext and destroys the image within a reasonable time.

When Sexting Falls Under Child Pornography Laws

In some states, especially those that do not have specific sexting laws, anyone who creates, possesses, or distributes nude or explicit photos of a juvenile can be charged with child pornography or related crimes, such as the sexual exploitation of a minor. Child pornography charges can arise whenever a person sends or receives explicit images of a person under the age of 18. But it isn't just adults who send or receive such images who can be charged with these crimes. Teens who send pictures of themselves to adults can face child pornography charges.

Penalties for Teen Sexting

Because teen sexting can involve juvenile courts (teens and minors younger than 18) or adult courts (teens who are 18 and 19) and cover various criminal laws, there is a wide range of potential penalties that may apply. In states that have specific laws that target sexting, the crime is typically either a misdemeanor or petty offense. However, in other states, a sexting offense may be considered child pornography, an offense that is typically charged as a felony and one that has much harsher penalties.

Juvenile Penalties for Sexting

When a juvenile—a person under the age of 18—commits a criminal offense, that offense is dealt with through the juvenile justice system, not the adult criminal justice system. Juvenile court judges generally have wide discretion in the kinds of penalties they impose, even when a juvenile is charged with a serious offense.

  • Warning. Juvenile judges can choose to punish a teen who commits a sexting offense with a verbal warning without requiring any other penalty.
  • Fine. At least one state, Florida, imposes a fine of $60 on first-time juvenile sexting offenders. Subsequent offenders may face more significant penalties.
  • Community service or counseling. A judge may order a teen who commits a sexting offense to perform community service. The court may also order a teen to attend individual or family therapy or an education class.
  • Probation. Probation is also possible for juveniles sexting offenders. A teen on probation must typically report to a probation officer, stay in school, and comply with any other orders the court decides.
  • Detention. Teen sexting might result in a court ordering the juvenile into a detention center, home confinement, group home, or other placement location.

Adult Penalties for Sexting With a Minor

If a teen is 18 or older, that teen can be charged as an adult and face more significant penalties, especially if convicted of child pornography or a similar charge.

  • Incarceration. An adult convicted of child pornography faces a potential prison sentence of 5 years or more. All felony convictions carry the potential of at least a year in prison, though a person convicted may not have to serve any prison time at all.
  • Fines. Sexting can result in significant fines, especially if the teen is convicted of a child pornography charge. Fines can easily exceed $5,000.
  • Probation. An adult convicted of sexting can also face probation of at least 12 months, but typically longer.
  • Sex offender registry. Adult teens convicted of a sexting crime are considered sex offenders and must typically register with a state sex offender registry. Sex offender registries are typically maintained by the police. They keep track of where registered offenders live, and offenders must notify police of their new location if they move. The registration requirements differ by state but usually last at least 10 years.

Teen Sexting Laws by State

Get state-specific information for teen sexting laws and penalties.

Speak to an Attorney

Any charges that stem from teen sexting can result in some very serious consequences for the teen, the people who shared photos with the teen, and the teen's parents or guardians. If you've been questioned by the police or charged with a sexting crime, you need to speak to an experienced local criminal defense lawyer immediately. Sexting can involve different criminal charges, and because these charges can differ so significantly between states, only a local attorney can provide you with legal advice about your case.

Keep in mind that if you end up with a conviction that requires registration as a sex offender, the consequences will be lifelong and dire, affecting your ability to work and severely limiting where you can live. For this reason alone, you absolutely must consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney.

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