How schools can get a handle on sexting

By: | March 14, 2019
Including sexting in comprehensive sex education can help students make better decisions about sharing explicit photos of themselves, experts say.Including sexting in comprehensive sex education can help students make better decisions about sharing explicit photos of themselves, experts say.

Attempts to control sexting among students can land administrators in legal and educational gray areas.

Few reasonable people would argue the feasibility of convincing teens not to share photos, regardless of content. And while families demand that educators protect children from sexually explicit material, some parents may view texting and other digital communication as constitutionally protected free speech.

The legal landscape also presents hurdles. Federal law equates sexting with child pornography, and makes it a felony to text sexually explicit images. In some states, however, sexting among minors only rates as a misdemeanor.

Finally, administrators may hesitate to wield authority when it comes to texts sent outside school hours. “Sexting is illegal, so administrators have a big challenge in figuring out how to deliver any education without inadvertently encouraging young people to break the law,” says Amy Adele Hasinoff, an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Colorado Denver.  

The most effective solution would allow schools to cover sexting as a part of sex education, says Hasinoff, whose Sexting Panic (University of Illinois Press, 2015) approaches the issue from a less punitive angle.

“The strength of comprehensive sex ed is that it acknowledges some teens will be sexually active,” she says. “The approach to texting should be the same.”


‘The messy reality’ of sexting

To handle sexting, older students need to develop the same skills that comprehensive sex ed would teach them about navigating intimate relationships, Hasinoff says.

Those skills include communicating effectively with sexual partners, building healthy relationships and knowing the meaning of consent. For example, even a willing sexual partner may not appreciate the texting of sexually explicit images.

“Some schools still just teach how the reproductive system works,” Hasinoff says. “That’s important, but it’s also important to learn about the messy reality of sexual relationships—that they can be consensual, healthy and pleasurable.”

Sexting ed should also cover concepts of digital privacy, which includes an element of protecting teens from their own enthusiasm for posting images online. Sharing naked pictures—even with a willing boyfriend or girlfriend—can result in criminal charges. And as a number of celebrities have learned, such images can easily fall into the wrong hands and become public.


Where there’s less gray area

Administrators can consider other questions when sexting incidents arise. If student uses a school computer to share sexually explicit images or if they sext with their own devices while on campus, administrators have plenty of justification to take disciplinary action. They can also step in when they find clear evidence of bullying or cyberbullying, or if a sexting incident disrupts school operations,—even when the activity originates off campus.

Administrators can tackle these issues by tightening policies that cover the acceptable use of technology—particularly in terms of school-owned devices or the prohibition of texting during class time. These policies may even allow an educator to confiscate a student’s smartphone.

Ultimately, it is far easier to address a violation of school rules than it is to wade into a free speech issue.


More reading and resources

Several organizations and experts in and outside education offer guidance for administrators concerned about sexting, including:

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