“He’s on the football team and he’s cool,” thought Caroline, then a Carmel High junior, as she tentatively picked up her cell phone and pressed SEND, relinquishing control of her personal nude photos to a senior boy. Much to her surprise, within days, Caroline’s brother brought her own explicit photos to her attention—they had made their way to his own friend group at California State University at Sonoma.
“It was the single most traumatic moment of my life, and he never apologized,” says the 2011 CHS graduate, currently a Montana State University senior, as she recounts the fallout of her decision to engage in sexting as a high school student.
Honor roll, AP classes and hanging out with friends turned into gossip, police questioning and court-mandated therapy.
But Caroline is far from the only high school student who has been asked to and has actually sent an explicit photo of herself to another. From a pool of 50 active social-networking CHS students aged 15 to 17, 35 reported to the Carmel Sandpiper that they had been asked by another minor to send a provocative photo and 12 admitted to actually having sent or received one of these explicit photos.
These kinds of statistics are in keeping with nationwide surveys. As summarized in a 2015 NSPCC/ChildLine survey, 60 percent of teenagers aged between 12 and 18 have been asked to send a nude photo via social media, 40 percent of teenagers have taken a nude photo, and just about a quarter of those teenagers have actually sent the photo to someone. Of those who sent a photo, 30 percent admitted to it being shared with people beyond the initial recipient, this same survey revealed.
Beyond the borders of Carmel, the same phenomenon persists and with startling consequences. 15-year-old Audrie Pott of Saratoga, California, committed suicide after nude photos of her were distributed online in 2012 and the social torture became too much to bear.
In understanding the legal side of these consequences, one may look to a North Carolina couple of two 16-year-olds, Cormega Copening and Brianna Denson, who possessed and sent nude photos of each other. In a 2015 article for Essence, Taylor Lewis reported, “Copening was charged with a whopping five felonies—two for taking nude photos of himself, two for sending the pics and one for having a photo of Denson—and faced up to 10 years in prison. Denson was charged with two—for taking and sending a nude selfie—facing four years.”
Depending on the state, the creation, possession and distribution of nude or explicit photos of a juvenile violates laws of child pornography and other related crimes, such as the sexual exploitation of a minor. Some states offer less severe charges for minors convicted of the possession or distribution of nude photos. California is no such state, leaving minors to be convicted of the same charges and consequences as adults prosecuted for similar crimes, says Carrie LeRoy, a partner at White & Case LLP and creator of Skadden Palo Alto’s pro bono impact program in conjunction with Legal Advocates for Children and Youth.
California law states that teenagers can be prosecuted under California general child porn and exploitation laws which lead to extremely harsh sentences as they are exactly the same for adults charged with these crimes, says Peter Followill, a contributing author for CriminalDefenseLawyer.com.
A person who possesses explicit material of a person under the age of 18 commits a felony punishable by up to a year in prison, a $2,500 fine or both. However, with cases in which the defendant has a prior conviction for any defense that required registration under the state’s Sex Offender Registration Act, a new conviction leads to two to six years in prison, Followill includes. Furthermore, a person convicted of distributing, exhibiting, exchanging, duplicating or possessing any obscene matter of a minor, even if the defendant himself is a minor, will face one year in prison and may also be subject to a judge imposing a fine of up to $10,000, and all of the above results in registration in California’s sexual offender registry, a life-long registration.
Not only can and will a minor be prosecuted for these crimes, but under federal law, the parents of the minors convicted are also in danger of facing jail time, Followill adds.
Dangers for Teens
The problem is that 61 percent of all teenagers are unaware that the possession and distribution of explicit photos is illegal, according to a 2015 Drexel University study.
“I was sending pictures to other guys at that time, too, and I guess you just never think anything bad is ever going to happen,” Caroline recalls. “I was trusting and always saw the good in everybody, and then I found out [this guy] had been lying to me and using me.”
Of the 50 CHS students surveyed, zero knew the full extent of the legal consequences of sexting and only about half were aware that there were legal risks at all.
Despite the dangers, teenagers are becoming more prone to sending explicit photos as owning a cell phone at a young age and sexting both become the “norm,” as Kate Burls, education team coordinator at Ceop, a command of the National Crime Agency, states in an article by The Guardian.
Burls qualifies the pressure felt by teen girls to take and send provocative photos of themselves. The education team coordinator describes the act of boys befriending girls for the sole purpose of receiving and distributing these photos to their friends as “snaking” and notes that this is a common occurrence among teens.
Caroline is proof of the pressure to succumb to “snaking” and found herself in a situation in which she never intended.
“With new technology, teenagers are becoming more comfortable sending these explicit photos,” LeRoy adds, and she’s not alone in this conclusion. Burls also finds the invention and growing popularity of Snapchat to be a catalyst in the amount of sexting that occurs between teens.
The 2011 app’s intention was to provide a platform that allows users to share images that were explicitly short-lived and self-deleting. However, teenagers are mistaken when they assume that when 10 seconds have elapsed their Snapchat photo is gone forever. In reality, Snapchat photos can be screenshotted and then shared. Even if they are not screenshotted, the photos never really disappear, LeRoy says.
Because of this, when universities or prospective employers search someone’s name, videos and photos arise that can alter the path of one’s life completely.
“I’ve talked to over 8,000 students in the Bay Area and all schools have this problem.” LeRoy says simply, “Students need to just stop it.”