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