With the advent of smartphones has come a problem that’s perplexing parents and educators alike: An increasing number of teens are sending partially or fully nude photos of themselves to other teens. The FBI defines sexting as sending or receiving photos of a sexual nature, generally by cell phone, and estimates that between 4 and 31 percent of youths have sexted.
Sexting typically involves images sent between two people in a relationship, the FBI reports, but the photos often are shared beyond their intended recipients. Sexting can fuel cyber bullying and can have emotional, behavioral and psychological impacts for teens at both ends of the cell phone. Educators, parents, and lawmakers nationwide are struggling with ways to curb the practice and dole out age-appropriate punishments. How does Pennsylvania law address sexting among teens, and what are the penalties?
Teen Sexting Laws in Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania has a law on the books that specifically addresses transmission of sexually explicit images by minors. The law provides that a minor commits a “summary offense” when he or she:
- Knowingly shares, distributes, or publishes electronic communications including a sexually explicit image of himself or herself.
- Knowingly has possession of or views a sexually explicit image of a minor who is age 12 or older.
The law does not apply to “accidental or inadvertent” viewing of such images. A “sexually explicit image” is defined as a lascivious or lewd depiction of the pubic region, genitals, buttocks or breasts of a minor, if the nudity is shown for the “sexual stimulation or gratification” of the person viewing the nudity.
Criminal Penalties for Teen Sexting
With a few exceptions, teen sexting — knowingly transmitting, distributing, publishing or disseminating electronic communications containing a sexually explicit image of a minor who is at least 12 years old — typically constitutes a third-degree misdemeanor under Pennsylvania law. The charge may be upgraded to a second-degree misdemeanor if the minor defendant intends to intimidate, harass or coerce another minor by:
- Recording an image of a minor who is either partially or fully nude without the minor’s knowledge and consent.
- Transmitting, distributing, publishing or disseminating such an image without the minor’s knowledge and consent.
Judges in teen sexting cases are advised under state law to refer violators to a “diversionary program,” an educational course that covers both legal and nonlegal effects of the sharing of sexually explicit images. Individuals who successfully complete such a program may have their records expunged of the charges.
Sending and receiving sexually suggestive images between consenting adults generally is not against the law. However, some behaviors related to sexting do run afoul of Pennsylvania law when minors are involved.
Both adults and minors can be charged under the state’s child pornography laws and laws that relate to the sexual abuse of children. The laws address the illegality of videotaping, photographing or otherwise depicting sexual acts or the simulation of sexual acts involving people under age 18. Selling or distributing such materials also constitutes a criminal offense. In addition, an individual who intentionally views or possesses any materials depicting child pornography engages in a criminal act.
The law also prohibits disseminating sexually explicit materials to people under age 18. Such materials are defined as photographs and other representations that show nudity or sexual conduct that is considered harmful to minors.
The laws relating specifically to teen sexting exclude images of sexual intercourse and other sexual acts; such images are covered under child pornography laws.
Is Teen Sexting Child Pornography?
Despite having laws on the books specifically addressing teen sexting, Pennsylvania has prosecuted teens under child pornography laws. In Greensburg in 2009, child pornography charges were filed against six teens who allegedly created, distributed and possessed nude or partially nude photos taken by 14- and 15-year-old girls, who then emailed them to three teen boys.
And in Allentown, several 13-year-old girls had their phones confiscated by school administrators after taking partially nude photos of each other and disseminating them to other students’ phones. School personnel reported the girls to police, and prosecutors moved forward with filing charges. Ultimately, 17 students agreed to take a class on sexual harassment in lieu of prosecution.
Contact Attorneys Experienced with Sexting Charges
If your teen child is charged with an offense related to sexting, you need professional legal representation to ensure that your child’s record is not permanently damaged. For a free consultation about your specific case, contact the experienced attorneys in the Pittsburgh law office of DeLuca, Ricciuti & Konieczka.