I recently read an article titled, “Why Kids Sext” in the November 2014 issue of The Atlantic Magazine (Volume 314, No. 4, pp.64-77). The title of the article made the front cover of this particular issue, which immediately caught my eye. As a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist-Supervisor, I have been taken aback by how prevalent sexting, or what some law enforcement agencies have termed self-produced child porn, has become among pre-teens and teens. Even more concerning are the challenges with how to deal with this type of issue in the criminal justice system. According to the article, two-thirds of the cases in the small town in Virginia in which the article was based involved an adult, were taken without the permission of the youth in the picture, involved some form of sexual abuse or blackmail, and therefore were criminally pursued. However, one-third of the cases were based on sexual experimentation of youth (p. 69).

When interviewed by police about the self-produced pornography, police shared being met with resistance from some of the teens in the photos. For example, some had wanted and tried to get their pictures posted on Instagram, while others argued with the officers saying, “This is my body” and “I don’t see a problem with it” (p. 67).

Police were left wondering how to label the teenage females that self-produced nude photos of themselves. The chief of police decided not to call them “victims” but rather females that “victimized themselves” (p. 67).

Compared to the rest of the country, the city where I reside is still considered quite small (Salt Lake City, UT). It is not as small as the town in Virginia where the article was based; however, we have a state riddled with issues related to male and female youth-who start looking at porn as early as 8 years of age- viewing pornography. Although I have heard about youth self-producing pornography and have even talked with parents and teens about the dangers of this type of sexual acting out behavior, this was the first time I was made aware of the challenges with addressing it in the criminal justice system.

What do we call teens who choose to take nude pictures of themselves, send them to someone else, post them on social media, or advertise on such websites as MeetMe.com? Are they victims if they are choosing to do this without their parents knowledge? Or are they sex offenders who are producing child porn?

Several states have grappled with what to do with this very real and serious epidemic amidst America’s teens. Especially in light of new laws being passed in states such as California where an individual who admits to producing and/or viewing child pornography to his or her therapist can be charged as a sex offender and faced with incarceration.

What if your child or teen is the one producing their own self-produced pornography and sending it into the world via social media? Who is responsible for that type of behavior? Who is the predator; the sex offender? Do we really want to start charging children and teens with sex offenses for producing their own self-made pornography? Do we want to label our youth with a such a term that creates a life-long stigma?

Do we go after the parents of these youth for allowing teens to have cell phones, laptops, computers, ipads, ipods, kindles or any screens? What if parents report have no idea that this is going on because they trust that they have raised their children to make good decisions and choices, especially related to their bodies and sex? Even parents that warn their children and teens about the dangers of engaging in this type of behavior; will they really be able stop their kids/teens from taking a snapchat if a male or female that they like begs them to “send a pic?” All too often teens say they had a weak moment where someone asked them and they decided to send a naked pic “real quick” or “just once” only to find out later that it was passed around the entire school.

Do we chalk up this type of self-produced pornography as a product of the times that will hopefully pass? Do we blame it on our screen and sex-crazed culture that has become obsessed with selfies and looking into other people’s private lives via Facebook, twitter, etc.

Regardless of the challenges that child/teen produced pornography has created upon our society as a whole, the argument need not be how do we criminalize our children and teens who are experimenting in this way, but rather, how do we educate them on healthy sexuality, healthy sexual, physical and emotional boundaries, and how to have a positive sense of self? Parents can support their children and teens by keeping an open door policy when it comes to talking about the hard subjects such as sex as well as creating consequences for unhealthy and dangerous behavior i.e., losing phone/screen privileges or having them use a flip phone and have all screens be supervised. Maintaining an on-going dialogue about the reality and dangers of social media is also an important topic that deserves to be discussed regularly among families.

We may not have a tried and true solution for keeping children safe when it comes to the self-produced pornography. However, by continually educating and supporting children on how to make healthy choices and decisions regarding their bodies and minds, parents can hopefully rest assured that their children will avoid this type of dangerous and damaging behavior that will not only haunt them now, but in the future as well.