What Are the Consequences of Sexting?

Discover how teens are impacted emotionally and legally

Couple looking at cell phone
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In some teen circles, sexting is an accepted occurrence that happens when people date or are interested in one another. In other instances, it is a one-time lapse in judgment. Regardless of the reason for it, the number of teens using the built-in cameras on their smartphones, iPads and other electronic devices to take nude or sexually-suggestive pictures is on the rise. But what many teens, and their parents, do not realize are the repercussions that come with these choices.

Sexting has some serious consequences not only for the person taking and sending the photos, but also for the person on the receiving end. As a result, it is important to talk with your kids about these consequences. Not only should teens be made aware of the emotional consequences of sexting, but they need to know about the legal ramifications as well.

For instance, most of the time sexting involves minors, so these nude photos are considered child pornography. As a result, sending or receiving these messages is a crime. Here is an overview of what can happen to a teen emotionally and legally if they engage in sexting.

Emotional Consequences

Many times, kids participate in sexting without thinking about the consequences. But in one impulsive move, they can alter their lives from that point forward. Here are some of the ways kids who sext suffer emotionally.

  • Experience embarrassment and humiliation. When a sexual or nude photo is sent to another person, there are no guarantees that this picture will remain private. And in many cases the pictures rarely do. Once a relationship breaks up, or a friend becomes angry, the pictures are often mass distributed as an act of revenge. As a result, the person in the photo is often embarrassed and humiliated when it is distributed. Many kids report feeling like they have walked down the halls of their school without any clothes after a photo is mass distributed.
  • Experience bullying. Once sext messages become public, this often opens teens up to bullying, especially cyberbullying. There are countless stories of young women who have participated in sexting and later have been bullied for it. Jessica Logan and Amanda Todd are two stories involving sexting that ended with tragic results. These girls were called vulgar names in person and online. Additionally, they were excluded and ostracized by other students. Ultimately, both girls took their own lives.
  • Experience the end of friendships. Many times, when a sexual image becomes public, friendships will dissolve. This experience can leave the teen in the photos feeling betrayed and alone. Because peer pressure is a powerful force, friends often distance themselves from the person being targeted because they fear they also will be bullied. They also worry their reputations will be tainted by the relationship, especially if slut-shaming is involved.
  • Experience guilt and shame. Having personal and private images shared with a mass audience can cause immense guilt and shame. As a result, kids who participate in sexting often regret having done so. It also impacts self-esteem leaving them feeling vulnerable and exposed.
  • Experience objectification. Girls who take nude pictures and then send them to a boyfriend, are at risk of being objectified. As a result, they are at a greater risk of victimization and sexual assault because others make assumptions about them based on their willingness to take and distribute the pictures. This does not mean they are to blame for being victimized or assaulted, but engaging in sexting does increase their risk of being victimized.
  • Experience feelings of hopelessness. As bullying, ridicule and embarrassment escalate around the sexting, teens can start to feel hopeless and become depressed. They also may contemplate suicide. If your teen has engaged in sexting and is showing signs of depression or talking about suicide, it is extremely important that you talk with a healthcare provider right away.

Legal Consequences

Kids often don’t realize that sexting a boyfriend or girlfriend is not a harmless act. Instead, they can face serious legal ramifications. Here are some important details regarding the legal consequences of sexting.

  • Risk receiving criminal charges for child pornography. Both kids who send the photos and kids who receive the photos can be charged. Those who send the photos may be charged with distributing child pornography in some states. And those who receive the photos may be charged with receiving child pornography, even if they did not request the photo. If they distribute the photos to friends, then they also may face charges for distributing child pornography as well. If your kids receive a nude or sexually-suggestive photo, they should delete it right away. Leaving it on their electronic device, puts them at risk for criminal charges.
  • Risk having to register as a sex offender. Aside from possible jail time and probation if convicted of charges related to child pornography, teens that sext also run the risk of having to register as a sex offender. This label is extremely burdensome for young people because of the stigmas attached and the reporting that is required. What's more, it is something that is likely to follow them for the rest of their lives.
  • Risk exposing parents to legal consequences. If parents know that their child is sexting and do nothing to end it, they may be charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor. The parents also can be subject to a civil suit if the victim’s parents choose to sue. Aside from talking to your child about her behavior, you should take away her technology. The goal is that you demonstrate that you have done everything you can to put an end to the sexting once you discover it is taking place.
  • Risk having to enter foster care or being removed from the home. If parents know about the sexting and do nothing to end it, then they may also be subject to an investigation by Child Protective Services in their city or state. Sometimes these investigations result in a child being removed from the home and placed in foster care. Be sure you do everything you can to keep your child from sexting. And, if you do find out they are engaging in this behavior, do everything you can to bring it to an end.

    ​A Word from Verywell Family

    Overall, the best scenario is if sexting does not take place at all. Parents should sit down with their teens and talk through all the risks associated with sexting. And if your child has received a sext message, they should delete it right away. Keeping it to show authorities at school or sending it to a parent, only puts them and their parents at risk legally.