New technologies have created new opportunities for juveniles to communicate with one another. 95 percent of teens ages 12-17 are online, and 80 percent of online teens use social networking sites.1 In a recent survey, 54 percent of teens reported either sexting or knowing someone who had sent a sext message.2 With digital communication at their fingertips, adolescents who fail to appreciate the risks associated with Internet and various social media communications may find their private information, including photographs and other images, shared well beyond the intended recipients.
In an effort to ”keep up” with advances in technology, many state legislatures have rushed to introduce bills to criminalize sexting and related behaviors. Touted as a deterrent to other teens contemplating posting or sharing nude or partially nude images of themselves, this “scared straight” approach would impose harsh criminal penalties even on youth who engage in consensual exchanges—instances where there is clearly no intent to harm.
Juvenile Law Center promotes public policies and practices that avoid criminalizing reasonable and normative adolescent behaviors, including sexual experimentation that today may include the consensual exchange of suggestive photos over their cellphones, as their parents may have exchanged Polaroid pictures 30 years ago. We support educational measures that reflect and are consistent with adolescent development research. We support the engagement of parents, communities and schools in the efforts to keep children safe and alert them to the consequences of various risky behaviors. Juvenile Law Center’s work seeks to ensure that typical—though ill-advised—juvenile behavior is not criminalized.
To the extent that this normative juvenile behavior is criminalized, Juvenile Law Center works with other advocacy groups and attorneys across the country to challenge the imposition of criminal liability for engaging in consensual sexting, thus needlessly pushing youth into the juvenile justice system.
Juvenile Law Center also supports legislative efforts that attempt to curb the intentional harmful effects of sexting and technology use by teens, such as cyberbullying. Juvenile Law Center has worked with legislators and other advocacy groups in Pennsylvania to promote legislation and education that addresses the appropriate and inappropriate use of technology among teens, striking a proper balance between society’s interest in curbing conduct that is intended to harm others and conduct that arises as youth naturally transition from adolescence to adulthood.
1. "Teens on Facebook: Study Says Most Have Positive Experiences." The Huffington Post. November 9, 2011.
2. Sifferlin, Alexandra. "Teen Sexting Linked to Real-World Risky Sexual Behavior." TIME. September 17, 2012.
Last updated January 2013
An adjudication of delinquency may limit opportunities to seek higher education, obtain employment, or enlist in the military.
Pennsylvania Juvenile Indigent Defense Action Network, "The Pennsylvania Juvenile Collateral Consequences Checklist," May 2010.
In one study, 20% of youth admitted to sexting.
The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and Cosmogirl.com, "Sex and Tech: Results from a Survey of Teens and Young Adults," 2008.
Juveniles are not as capable of socially responsible decision-making as adults.
Cauffman, Elizabeth and Steinberg, Laurence. "(Im)maturity of Judgment in Adolescence: Why Adolescents May Be Less Culpable Than Adults." Behavioral Sciences and the Law 18.6 (2000): 741-760.
There is no evidence that zero-tolerance policies make schools safer or improve student behavior. On the contrary, research suggests that the overuse of suspensions and expulsions may actually increase the likelihood of later criminal misconduct.
ACLU, "School to Prison Pipeline: Talking Points," www.aclu.org, 6 June 2008. Web. June 2011.
In 2008, 71% of youth between the ages of 12 and 17 used cell phones.
Lenhart, Amanda. "Teens and Mobile Phones Over the Past Five Years: Pew Internet Looks Back ." Pew Internet and American Life Project, Pew Research Center, 9 Aug. 2009.