It is critical that the legal and psychological issues surrounding youth sexting, a term derived from the joining of “sex” and “texting,” be considered. Based on current interpretations of the law, minors who engage in sexting can be charged with a felony offense and in some cases be required to register as a sex offender. Yet, when adults share sexually explicit photos of themselves, such behavior is protected under the First Amendment (provided the subject and the recipient of the image are consenting adults). The purpose of the present review is to examine the differential treatment of sexting by minors in the legal system and the controversy surrounding child pornography legislation. A brief history of child pornography legislation is provided, followed by a review of the existing literature on the prevalence and patterns of juvenile sexting. Available case law is summarized, with an emphasis on the consequences of sexting specifically for juveniles. The authors then address the developmental factors relevant to understanding youth sexting behavior. These considerations lead to a discussion of whether it is appropriate to consider adolescents culpable for such behavior and, if so, to what degree and under what circumstances. It is argued that sexting behavior be considered separate from child pornography, and as such, the authors propose that specific legislation be designed to address the unique situations in which sexting behavior occurs. Furthermore, based on developmental science, the authors conclude that juveniles should be considered less culpable for sexting behavior than adults, and recommend that the punishment for minors be more developmentally appropriate.
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