Sexting among youth is more prevalent than previously thought, according to a new study from Drexel University that was based on a survey of undergraduate students at a large northeastern university. More than 50 percent of those surveyed reported that they had exchanged sexually explicit text messages, with or without photographic images, as minors.
The study also found that the majority of young people are not aware of the legal ramifications of underage sexting. In fact, most respondents were unaware that many jurisdictions consider sexting among minors – particularly when it involves harassment or other aggravating factors – to be child pornography, a prosecutable offense. Convictions of these offenses carry steep punishments, including jail time and sex offender registration.
"This is a scary and disturbing combination," said researcher David DeMatteo, JD, PhD. "Given the harsh legal penalties sometimes associated with youth sexting and the apparent frequency with which youth are engaging in it, the lack of comprehension regarding such penalties poses a significant problem."
The study, entitled "Youth Sexting: Prevalence Rates, Driving Motivations, and the Deterrent Effect of Legal Consequences," was published online in June 2014 by the journal entitled Sexuality Research and Social Policy.
In addition to DeMatteo, an associate professor of psychology and law and director of Drexel's joint JD/PhD program in psychology and law in the College of Arts and Sciences and School of Law, the study was conducted by lead author Heidi Strohmaier, a PhD candidate in psychology at Drexel, and Megan Murphy, a JD/PhD candidate at Drexel.
The study, in which undergraduate students from a large northeastern university completed an anonymous online survey concerning their engagement in sexting as minors, revealed a significant relationship between awareness of legal consequences and sexting behavior as minors.
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. Additionally, most respondents who reported being unaware of the potential legal consequences of sexting expressed the belief that they may have been deterred from sexting as a minor if they had known.
The finding that legal consequences may deter youth from sexting has important policy implications, according to the researchers.
In many jurisdictions, the law has yet to catch up with youth sexting behavior and technological advances. Until recently, most states did not have a legal mechanism in place to handle cases of teenage sexting. Instead, they were required to fit this new teenage subculture into the existing legal framework. As a result, youth sexting was often subsumed under laws governing serious child pornography and child exploitation offenses. Convictions of these offenses carry steep punishments, including jail time and sex offender registration—punishments that many lawyers and legislatures have deemed too harsh for adolescent sexting.
While many states have joined the movement toward creating youth sexting legislation, there is currently no federal sexting-specific legislation in the United States.
"It's a major concern that many states do not have laws that specifically address sexting," said DeMatteo. "Sexting specific laws would be beneficial because they – ideally – would clearly define what constitutes sexting and outline potential penalties. To the latter point, these laws would make it possible for judges to avoid imposing overly harsh sentences on those who are prosecuted under sexting laws."
The rapidly changing legal landscape further underscores the need to educate youth about current sexting laws. According to the researchers, an important step in addressing this issue would be to develop educational initiatives aimed at providing basic information to youth about legal consequences of sexting and other negative consequences such as humiliation, a tarnished reputation and bullying/taunting.
"Young people need to be educated about the potential consequences of sexting—legal, social and psychological," DeMatteo said. "The education should come from many sources – the more young people hear the message, the more likely it will be to sink in – so they should be educated by their parents, schools and perhaps even law enforcement."
The study also examined motivations for sexting, the frequency respondents engaged in this behavior, the number of partners with whom they exchanged sexts, gender differences with regard to sexting and opinions about what appropriate consequences should be for engaging in illegal forms of this behavior.
About the Researchers:
David DeMatteo's research interests include psychopathy, forensic mental health assessment, drug policy and offender diversion. His research has been funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Pennsylvania Department of Health, Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency and American Psychology-Law Society. DeMatteo is licensed as a psychologist in Pennsylvania, where he conducts forensic mental health assessments of juveniles and adults. He has co-authored four books, including "Forensic Mental Health Assessment: a Casebook," now in its second edition from Oxford University Press, as well as numerous book chapters and articles. He is an associate editor of Law and Human Behavior, on the editorial boards of several other journals, and a reviewer for more than 25 scientific journals. He is a fellow of the American Psychological Association, and he is board certified in forensic psychology by the American Board of Professional Psychology.
Megan Murphy is entering her sixth-year in Drexel's JD/PhD program. Her primary research interests include criminal responsibility evaluations; risk assessment; trauma-informed care; and burgeoning areas in forensic psychology, such as forensic animal maltreatment evaluations. Her co-authored publications explore issues such as mandated substance-use treatment, capital sentencing, juvenile justice and women's issues in forensic psychology. Murphy has clinical experience in a range of psychological settings. She has done human rights work in Port-au-Prince with Drexel's Haiti Justice Project and participated in a legal co-op at the Montgomery County Public Defender's Office. Before coming to Drexel, Murphy served as a volunteer coordinator for AmeriCorps "Schools of Hope," addressing educational inequality through literacy tutoring in elementary schools.
Heidi Strohmaier is completing her fourth year in Drexel's doctoral program in clinical psychology. Her primary research emphasis is on forensic issues, including psychopathy, diversion for offenders with mental health and substance use issues, and legislation regarding animal maltreatment and juvenile sex offenders. Strohmaier also has clinical interests in health psychology and PTSD, particularly among veterans. During graduate school, she has completed clinical practica involving assessments and therapy with incarcerated offenders, hospitalized medical patients and adults with social anxiety disorder. She will be completing her pre-doctoral internship at the James Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa, Florida.
About Drexel's JD/PhD Program:
Drexel University's School of Law and College of Arts and Sciences offer a joint and integrated JD/PhD Program in law and psychology. The program melds two already ongoing successful endeavors, the JD degree in the School of Law and the PhD in clinical psychology in the Department of Psychology, thus further enhancing Drexel's leadership in multidisciplinary education. The program provides those students who wish to pursue professional degrees in both law and psychology with a more efficient plan of study. The program is designed to be completed in seven years.
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