Sexting Can Have Serious Legal Consequences For Teens

A court in Virginia is warning middle school students that sexting can have major consequences. 

Prince William County prosecutors are taking students in Manassas out of the classroom and into the courtroom to show the risks of sending sexually explicit photographs or messages via cellphones and other technology. 

Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Bradley Marshall recently spoke sternly to a group of students.

“The only way to prevent yourself from becoming a victim, or private pictures being spread and seen by others is simply not to take them and not to send them; it’s the only way to do it,” he said. 

The goal is to save students' reputations and keep them out of jail.

Mock trials are set up in a Prince William County courtroom, with students filling in as the prosecutor, defense attorney and judge.

The fake trial focuses on an underage teen who sends a nude photo of herself to her boyfriend. He, in turn, shares it with a friend. The defendant is then charged with producing child pornography. 

Turkessa Rollins, an attorney in Prince William County, runs the program along with assistant county attorney Jackie Lucas.

“One of the things that we tell them when we first start the tour is that this is real life. This is not a TV show,” Lucas said.

Lucas played one of the three suspects, “testifying” that the friends would share the photos they received, not thinking it was a big deal.

The students played out the parts as the rest of the class watched and all three of the minors were found guilty. 

“I think they really need to understand the dangers of doing so,” Rollins said of sexting.

With the mock trial over, a real judge and prosecutor highlight the seriousness of these issues.

Judge Lisa Baird of Prince William County Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court warned students that their friends might not back them in court.

“They don’t come in to say ‘Hey, this person’s a good person. This person’s my good friend.’ They’re running and hiding. So just remember that,” Baird told students.

About a dozen Prince William County middle schools took part in a recent courthouse tour.

The program’s administrator said parents can opt their child out of the training, but they worry high school is too late for this type of education.

Here are 4 things you should know about the risks of sexting: 

Learn the laws: Each state differs in how they treat sexting cases, differentiating between sexting among minors and child pornography.

The company Mobile Media Guard, which sells products to monitor children's cellphones, compiled a map showing state laws.

Teen penalties: Young people found guilty of sexual misconduct can face fines, community service or jail time, and be ordered to register as sex offenders, The New Yorker reported

A national survey found that 62 percent of state prosecutors had handled a sexting case involving juveniles. A team at the University of New Hampshire interviewed 378 state prosecutors who had worked on technology-facilitated crimes against children. More than a third of prosecutors surveyed had filed charges in these cases, and 21 percent had filed felony charges.

Signs your teen is sexting: Parents can watch for signs that their teen may be sexting according to McAfee Family Safety Evangelist Toni Birdsong. Teens may be overly protective of their cellphone, grabbing it away from the parents or sleeping with it under their pillow. They insist on texting with friends in a private place or turning their back to read or send a message. Another sign is if the teen gets uncomfortable, angry or defensive when questioned about their phone usage. 

Parents can help by educating their kids: A Pew Research Center study conducted in 2009 showed teens describing the pressure they feel to share sexually suggestive images when in a relationship or hoping to be in one. Talk with your teens about the consequences that can come from sending and receiving such images. 

In a study done by Drexel University, 61 percent of survey respondents were not aware that sending texts could be considered child pornography, while 59 percent of respondents reported that knowledge of legal consequences “would have” or “probably would have” deterred them from sexting.

The findings show that those who were aware of the potential legal consequences reported sexting as a minor significantly less than those who were not aware of the legal consequences.

Parents should learn the laws, have these conversations with their teens about controlling images and understanding that once a picture is sent, it is no longer under their control and has the potential to go anywhere.

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