Protecting Your Kids Online Series: Sexting

September 27, 2010 by David S. Seltzer

I have been called upon several times to speak as an Orlando cyber crime criminal defense attorney about the online dangers to kids and teenagers. This post introduces a series of posts on those subjects to help provide this information. The Internet is not necessarily a danger to children, but it can be -- and kids and their parents should have the tools they need to stay safe. Today, we talk about sexting -- the practice of sending text messages with sexually suggestive pictures, usually to peer group members.

Part of talking to your kids about sexting is talking to your kids about sexuality in general. This can be an uncomfortable subject, but it’s up to parents to teach appropriate sexual behavior and set expectations. Similarly, you can do a lot to prevent sexting simply by staying involved in your teens’ lives -- knowing who their friends are and who they’re texting, calling and emailing.

Experts also suggest that you explain the potential social repercussions of sexting to your kids. Teens should realize that once a photo is out of their hands, they cannot control where it goes or what others do with it. Ask them what they think might happen to their pictures if they break up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, or if their friends send the pictures along to others without permission. (You might also ask whether they would consider doing this to another person.) When photos get out, it can end friendships and lead to bullying or cyberbullying -- in one case, it led to an Ohio girl’s suicide. In rarer cases, the photos could even be traded as outright child pornography by adult predators, or make the teen a potential target for predators.

Even more importantly, you should explain to your teens that they could be swept up in the legal system if they are caught sexting. Teenagers may not believe that taking their own photos could be considered “producing child pornography,” but the laws of most states -- including Florida -- say otherwise. Because watching this issue is part of my job as a Miami-Dade cyber crime criminal defense lawyer, I have written here about multiple stories of teenagers caught in the legal system because of sexting. Sexting between classmates or age-mates is not the same as exploitation by a much older adult, but some prosecutors refuse to recognize this. As a result, kids can be, and have been, charged with producing child pornography for taking their own photos, or photos of others, and with distributing child pornography for passing the photos along.

The results of this kind of prosecution are not trivial or fun, even in juvenile court. Depending on the circumstances, minors convicted of child pornography crimes can face juvenile detention or adult prison. This will take them out of their schools and their lives and expose them to a population that has committed serious crimes. Those convicted will almost always become registered sex offenders as well -- even if convicted as minors. This means their names, crimes and photos will be on the online registry for the public to see, and they will face restrictions on their residency and future careers. In Florida, our residency restrictions are so severe that some blame them for large-scale homelessness, including the sex offender colony under the Julia Tuttle Bridge here in Miami. This will almost certainly stop them from living on campus in college, if they have the opportunity to go.

If you are concerned that your teens are already sending and receiving sexually suggestive photos, remember that you’re paying the bills. Some parents don’t feel comfortable investigating their children’s lives without permission -- but if your teens haven’t made good decisions or been trustworthy in the past, you should consider it. If you’re paying for their mobile phones, review your bill to see who your teens have been talking to. If necessary, many phone companies allow you to limit or take away Internet access, text messages, attachments to messages and other data charges. Even if your teens are paying for their own phones, you may still be able to check contact lists and recent calls and texts. And a few companies offer software that helps parents monitor how their kids are using their phones -- calls, texts, photos, even physical location through GPS.

Of course, not everyone caught sexting faces serious personal or legal consequences. As a West Palm Beach cyber crime criminal defense attorney, I see these cases rarely, compared to cases involving adults. Nonetheless, teens should know that sexting is not just trivial fun -- there are serious risks involved, including the risk of life-changing legal trouble. I work hard to protect juvenile clients caught up in adult hysteria over texting, but the best way to avoid it in the first place is to make good choices -- and that means giving your kids the tools they need to make good choices.

If you or someone you care about is charged with a cyber crime or any other kind of crime in Florida, don’t wait to call Seltzer Law, P.A. To learn more or set up a free consultation, call us anytime -- 24 hours a day and seven days a week -- at 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-333) or send us a message online.