Sexting among teenagers continues to skyrocket, with significant jumps over the past decade. According to recent research from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Pediatrics, nearly 30 percent of teens (or one in four) are receiving sexts and almost 15 percent (or one in seven) are sending them.

 What is Sexting?

Sexting is the act of “sending, receiving, or forwarding sexually explicit messages, photographs, or images, primarily between mobile phones, of oneself to others.” And while the act of teen sexting is becoming increasingly common, the study found it is most prevalent among older teens—with the average age being 15 years old. It is suggested that the rise in adolescent sexting may be related to the spike in smartphone usage among this demographic (with a whopping 95 percent of teens reporting they either have or have access to a smartphone, which is a 22 percent increase within just four years).

What Are the Legalities of Sexting?

While sexting among consensual adults for private use is legal, when it involves children (under the age of 14) or minors (between the ages of 14-17) it opens the door to a host of potential state and federal legalities. Penalties involving children are typically more severe than those with minors.

As teen sexting is a relatively new phenomenon, many states do not have specific laws in place to address it. This is true in Missouri, as there is no current legislation surrounding teenagers sharing sexually explicit media. Instead, state officials must utilize existing child pornography laws.

This can cause serious short- and long-term legal consequences for teenagers who are sexting—even if it is consensual. Because of this, it is imperative that parents educate their children on the dangers and risks of sexting. The current Missouri sexting statute for minors includes:

  • The first-time offense for a minor to either possess or distribute a sexually implicit image is Class A Misdemeanor, which can result in one year of jail time and a $1,000 fine.
  • The second-time offense for a minor to either possess or distribute a sexually implicit image is a Class D Felony, which can result in up to four years of jail time and a $5,000 fine.

The important thing to emphasize is that these statutes not only affect the minor who distributes the sext, but also the one who receives it. Consider, for example, the local story at Nixa Junior High School in Nixa, Missouri. Dozens of teens had their cell phones seized as a result of a child pornography investigation from local law enforcement that involved the sharing of sexually explicit peer images. Incidents like these showcase the severity of distributing and receiving sexts. This is not an isolated incident, either, as 12 percent of teens have reportedly forwarded a sext without permission.

Thanks to the Federal Juvenile Delinquency Act, sexting cases involving minors are typically prosecuted in state—not federal—court. However, there are numerous federal laws on the matter that could result in life-altering consequences for minors. For instance, the language behind the recent “Protecting Against Child Exploitation Act of 2017” is written in a way that could ultimately make teens sending or receiving sexual content at risk for up to 30 years of prison on the first offense.

Understandably, legalities become much more severe if an adult age 18 or older possesses or distributes sexually explicit content involving a minor. Under state child pornography laws, the adult could face incarceration and be required to register as a sex offender with lifelong record implications.

As a result of a 2019 amendment to Missouri’s child pornography laws, convicted minors are not guilty of a felony and, therefore, do not register as a sex offender. However, in Missouri a 17 year old can oftentimes be charged as an adult making them susceptible to more severe implications on a state and federal level. It is not uncommon for this to come into play if an 18 year old, for example, is dating a minor and possesses or distributes sexually explicit content with their partner. Ultimately, both the adult and minor could undergo a felony investigation.

What To Do If Falsely Accused?

Because the prevalence of sexting has grown exponentially within a short period of time, there are many gray areas within the law in its current state. Particularly, laws surrounding sexting can be drastically different from state-to-state and rapidly changing. Additionally, like Missouri, dedicated sexting statutes can be non-existent and instead fall under child pornography legislation.

However, in the face of so much uncertainty, consequences for sexting can be extremely severe, including prison sentences, expensive fines, and damaging lifelong record implications. That is why it is imperative that if you or your child is being investigated for sexting charges, you immediately consult a skilled defense attorney. Importantly, do not answer any questions or consent to the search of any devices until doing so. A skilled lawyer will understand the nuances of the legal system, have knowledge of the current and ever-changing landscape of sexting legalities within your state, and ultimately increase your chance of a favorable outcome.