Teen sexting and the law – a parent’s fears

Teen sexting and the law - a parent's fears

Image by Jhaymesisvip via Flickr

This week a mum on our forum discovered her 14-year-old son had been ‘sexting’ a girl. She’d been told in confidence and could not reveal to her son that she knew.

She was desperately worried that he could be charged with creating child pornography.


“Is sexting (just sms, kik or whatever), only words, not pictures illegal? I know that pictures for kids, under 18, is a serious offence, but what about words? Is that grooming?

Argh, such a mess!!! I would appreciate your advice.


So how prevalent is sexting among our teenagers? There have been some attempts to measure the number of young people who have participated in sexting, with varying results. Pew Internet Research in the US found that 39% of teenagers have sent sexually suggestive emails or messages, which correlates with a 2007 Australian poll by Girlfriend magazine found that 40% of 588 girls surveyed had been asked to send nude pictures of themselves to others. (Ref)

A quick search of online news shows that a number of teenagers across Australian have been charged this year in relation to sexting. A 2011 story in The Courier Mail reported that more than 450 child pornography charges had been laid against Queensland youths aged 10 to 17 in the three years prior.

The laws around sexting

There are no laws directly covering sexting, but rather it falls under laws relating to pornography, voyeurism and indecency.

Thanks to Martine from The Modern Parent who shared this overview of the current laws in Australia:

“When it comes to sexting and the law, yes the laws are outdated as they were created with a view to adults distributing the pictures. From recent studies we know kids are happy for there to be laws regarding sexting and cyber bullying but they need to feel there is a more appropriate range of responses available. Such studies are being prepared to help change these laws which will also be looking at the level of consent when exchanging pictures. Currently it is an offence just to have the pictures on your device, whether you sent, received or asked for them. It is also a possibility to be registered as a sex offender even if under 18 so this is another law that needs to be looked at. There is also a push for the state and Commonwealth laws to be be brought in line as currently they are all different.”

Detective Senior Constable Romina McEwan told the ABC that although the penalties for sexting can include up to 10 years in jail, not every case is prosecuted.

“There are a number of options open to police once an investigation is concluded and an offence detected. These can include counselling, cautions, diversions or prosecution.”

Martine has followed up with a post on her own blog: Sexting and the law: why we are all confused. She has summarised some of the recommendations from the recent Law Reform Research Report New Voices / New Laws by the National Children’s and Youth Law Centre.

Several states and the Commonwealth are currently reviewing pornography laws with a view to protecting children from being charged for sexting.

How should a parent respond to sexting?

Liz Walker, who runs the Get A Grip sexuality and relationships programs in Australian high schools, shared this advice:

“As several have already said, you are certainly not alone. This is the world we live in and somehow, we need to make the best of these situations and help our kids learn and grow through it.

“As a teen sexuality educator, I’d recommend you find ways to affirm his sexuality without guilt and shame messages, but also too, help him see how taking and sharing these images are contributing to a much bigger social issue. Pornography sends teens the message that nudes are where the action is. It’s impacting their relationships, their ability to intimately connect, their perception of consent and their capacity to empathise. Handled well, there are so many opportunities in your discussion with your son to empower him to make choices based on respect and empathy.”

Extra thanks to Liz for letting us know that the new Australian documentary film, Love and S*x in an Age of P*rnography, will be broadcast nationally on SBS2 this Friday, 26 July, 9.45pm:

Love & Sex in an Age of Pornography

Still from documentary Love & Sex in an Age of Pornography

“Through candid interviews with Australian young people and pornography industry professionals in Budapest and Los Angeles, Love and Sex in an Age of Pornography documents the shifts in contemporary mainstream pornography and its influence on the sexual expectations  and experiences of young people.

“This film is part of Brophy Family and Youth Services’ broader community education project ‘Reality & Risk: Pornography,young people and sexuality’.”

From www.brophyweb.org.au

Love & Sex in an Age of Pornography is rated MA15+. View the trailer.


Teenagers needed for survey

Researchers at Sydney University have written to The Kids Are All Right readers to ask their teenagers to participate in a survey on sexting.

“Our research is funded by the Australian Institute of Criminology and our report will inform law and policy making, it is the latest research being conducted into Australian sexting among young people. We have just released an anonymous online survey for teens to fill out so we can get their perspective on sexting and it would be great if it could be promoted to your readers who are clearly interested in the latest issues and policy around this topical issue.”

Read more here:
Survey asks teenagers to reveal their sexting habits


Have your say

Please visit the forum to read more about Jo’s situation, or to share your own experiences or thoughts on teenagers and sexting.




  1. Thank you for highlighting such an important topic.

  2. Glad to have read this. Hmmm… I have been very clear to the kids that if I ask to see their phones then I expect them to let me see them… even though I don’t tend to look at them, I’m sure knowing I might will be restraining for them. What a messy situation we have now with technology moving faster than the law, and MUCH faster than this mother’s brain.
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