What's the big deal about sexting?

Story highlights

  • Rey Junco: American society has a double standard when it comes to sexuality
  • Junco: Sexting, if not abused or exploited, is not a social evil
  • He says sexting is a way to express one's sexual identity, especially for teenagers
  • Junco: But sexting presents legal and social ramifications, including bullying

Rey Junco is an associate professor of library science at Purdue University and a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. He is the author of the upcoming book, "Engaging Students through Social Media: Evidence-Based Practices for Use in Student Affairs." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)American society has a double standard when it comes to sexuality. We have a puritanical taboo against talking about sexuality directly, yet we are fine with the sexual images that pervade television and glossy magazines.

We sexualize children in advertising by turning girls into objects that bear little resemblance to what young women actually look like. And we do this in movies where even animated characters take on curvaceous hips and big breasts.

    But then when it comes to our kids having some kind of sexual identity, we freak out. That needs to stop.

    Rey Junco

    We vilify sexting, or sending sexually explicit messages and images via text messaging. But sexting, if not taken to the extreme or exploited by bullies, is not the social evil that it is made out to be.

    Sexting is a normal part of human sexual expression not only for adolescents, but for adults as well. New data from the Pew Internet and American Life Project show that adults 25 to 34 years old are more likely to sext than those in other age groups.

    Anxious parents might think that sexting leads to a slew of negative consequences like early and risky sexual behavior. But there is evidence to suggest this is not the case. The proportion of American adolescents who are sexually active has declined in recent years (though the rates are still high and warrant concern). Adolescent pregnancy rates have also declined over the last two decades, perhaps due to more teenagers using contraception.

    Sexting is not related to riskier sexual behaviors like having unprotected sex. About the only thing sexting is related to is sexual activity — adolescents who are sexually active are more likely to sext.

    Sexting doesn't indicate a significant change in teenage sexual behaviors; it just makes teenage sexual behaviors more visible to adults. Sexting can help adolescents discover their sexual identity, something that is developmentally appropriate in the teenage years, whether they are sexting or not.

    But sexting is not without problems.

    Because laws have not yet caught up with the realities of technology use, in some states, a minor could potentially be charged under child pornography laws for sexting. There are a few, rare instances when this has happened. In these cases, there is usually quite a bit of backlash against prosecutors attempting to indict minors under child pornography laws. Seventeen states have created legislation that either decriminalizes sexting or makes it a misdemeanor.

    States like Florida and Vermont make the creation, possession, or sending of a nude image of a minor by a minor a non-criminal violation for the first offense. That being said, there is nothing stopping an overzealous prosecutor in another state from making an example of a teenager and charging him with the most severe penalty possible.

    The social consequences of sexting are more troubling. Messages shared in confidence can be shared with other people or broadcast to a wider audience. Luckily, this doesn't happen often. One study found only 2% of sexters had their photo shared with someone they didn't want to see it.

    Although it's unlikely, imagine how future employers might evaluate your daughter if they Google her and find a sexually explicit image. What is more likely is that your teenage daughter's peers will share and shame her for the image.

    In the worst cases, sexting can lead to tragedy. Thirteen-year-old Hope Witsell sexted a photo to her boyfriend. Somehow, a classmate got hold of the photo and passed it around. Before you know it, the photo went viral. Witsell committed suicide reportedly after repeated bullying and taunts from other students who called her names like "slut" or "whore." Eighteen-year-old Jessica Logan also committed suicide reportedly after her boyfriend circulated a nude picture of her that was meant to be seen in confidence. These cases are heartbreaking. They show that we must educate young people, especially young men, about how harmful such acts can be. And as a society, we must do more to raise awareness and combat bullying and cyberbullying.

    If sexting is not abused and done discretely, it is an acceptable form of exploration of sexual identity, especially for adolescents. You can talk about sexting as a way to talk with your teenage son or daughter about safe sex. Once you have established a good rapport, explain the pitfalls of sexting — that if they're not careful, nude images of them can be shared with the whole world and used to harm their reputations.

    Adolescents are naturally impulsive because the teenage brain is still developing the ability to self-regulate. Try to be understanding and keep your cool. Remember: Sexting is the ultimate form of safe sex — the sender and receiver are not even in the same room.

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