ICYMI: Colorado Case Puts Spotlight on Underage Sexting’s Harsh Legal Consequences


Apparently everyone is doing it.

But while it may be beneficial for adult relationships, as one Drexel study found, for teens it can be another story.

According to a Drexel study conducted last year by Dave DeMatteo, JD, PhD, an associate professor of law and psychology and director of the JD/PhD program in the Kline School of Law and College of Arts and Sciences, along with two graduate students, sexting among youth is more prevalent than previously thought, with more than 50 percent of those surveyed reporting that they had exchanged sexually explicit text messages, with or without photographic images, as minors.

But what most of these teens don’t know is that sexting as a minor can come with harsh legal ramifications.

In this study, in fact, most respondents were unaware that many jurisdictions consider sexting among minors – particularly when it involves harassment or other aggravating factors – to be child pornography, a prosecutable offense. Convictions of these offenses carry steep punishments, including jail time and sex offender registration.

The study was covered by CNN.com, TIME.com, the Washington Post and numerous other outlets.

A recent case in Colorado brought to light the prevalence of underage sexting and ignorance about its impact – what DeMatteo calls a “scary and disturbing combination” – as several hundred naked photos exchanged by students from Cañon City High School were uncovered, prompting a felony investigation by police.

The Cañon City School District said that if charges are filed, they could amount to a Class 3 felony if students took “a picture of themselves showing a naked private body part and sent it to another person, … received such a picture and forwarded it to another person, or … received such a picture and retained possession of it over time.”

In a recent Wall Street Journal article on the case, DeMatteo said that the wide variation in state laws regarding sexting is a problem.

“Not only can [sexting] have social consequences in terms of humiliation and ostracism, but it can have legal consequences,” he said.

In a Q+A about the study, DeMatteo said, “It’s a major concern that many states do not have laws that specifically address sexting. Laws targeting a particular behavior are most effective if they are clear, consistent and predictable. 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.”

In the meantime, DeMatteo said that, like with many things, education is an effective tool when it comes to sexting.

“Young people need to be educated about the potential consequences of sexting, which can include legal, social and psychological consequences; ways to avoid running afoul of sexting laws in their jurisdictions; and how to avoid becoming a victim of sexting. The education should come from many sources – the more young people hear the message, the more likely it’ll be to sink in – so they should be educated by their parents, schools and perhaps even law enforcement.”

Members of the news media who are interested in speaking with DeMatteo should contact Alex McKechnie at ahm62@drexel.edu or 215.895.2705.