Berkman Center Sexting: Youth Practices and Legal Implications

Berkman Center Sexting: Youth Practices and Legal Implications

I will be sharing a collection of recent internet safety research pieces. The first one shared was McAfee’s Survey Results: The Secret lives of Teens, this is the fourth installment.


This document addresses legal and practical issues related to the practice colloquially known as sexting. It was created by Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic, based at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, for the Berkman Center’s Youth and Media Policy Working Group Initiative.

This document is intended to provide background for the discussion of interventions related to sexting. It begins with a definition of sexting, and continues with overviews of research and media stories related to sexting. It then discusses the statutory and constitutional framework for child pornography and obscenity. It concludes with a description of current and pending legislation meant to address sexting.

II. Definition of Sexting

There is no consistent definition of sexting in law or research. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (“NCMEC”), the term refers to the practice of “youth writing sexually explicit messages, taking sexually explicit photos of themselves or others in their peer group, and transmitting those photos and/or messages to their peers.” This definition is not intended to include “situations in which young people send sexually explicit images of themselves to adults.” As NCMEC notes, however, “this distinction becomes more difficult based upon the age difference between the two

parties,” for example when an 18‐year‐old high school student is involved. It also is not meant to include those situations in which images are sent under “duress, coercion, blackmail, or enticement,” although determining whether any of these exist in a given incident can be complicated.

III. Research on Sexting

To date, four surveys have been conducted on sexting among teens and young adults in the United States. The most recent, released by the Pew Research Center in December 2009, focuses on teens ages 12‐17 who report sending or receiving “sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images via text messaging” on their cell phones. According to the survey, 4% of teens between the ages of 12 and 17 have sent sexually provocative images of themselves to someone else via text message, while 15% have received such images from someone they know. The Pew data indicates that older teens are much more likely to engage in such behavior, with 8% of 17‐year‐olds having sent a nude or semi‐nude image by text and 30% having received such an image.

Pew’s focus groups reveal three main scenarios in which sexting tends to occur: (1) exchanges of images solely between two romantic partners; (2) exchanges between romantic partners that are then shared with others outside the relationship; and (3) exchanges where at least one person would like to start a romantic relationship. Pew’s data suggests that sexting has become a form of “relationship currency,” with girls in particular sometimes feeling pressure to send images.

The three earlier surveys indicate higher levels of sexting involvement among teens and young people than does the Pew survey, ranging from 20‐24%. This discrepancy is likely based on two factors. First, the Pew study focuses on teens between the ages of 12 and 17, whereas the other studies focus on older teens and young adults. Second, the Pew survey asks only about nude or nearly nude images sent or received via text messaging. The other surveys are framed more broadly, asking respondents whether they have “shared” such images, “sent/posted” such images, or sent such images in “emails or text messages.”

Click here to learn more: Sexting: Youth Practices and Legal Implications


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