Double Take: If someone sends me a sext of someone else, am I complicit in a crime?

Double Take columnists Gabe Magee and Dr. Wes Crenshaw

Dear Dr. Wes and Gabe: What do you do if you’re a mid-teen and a friend sends you an unrequested nude picture of his girlfriend, also your friend, without her consent? Everyone may be doing it, but it was a rotten deed. You should tell her, except sexting is a felony. Some teenagers have even gone to jail. If you impulsively delete it, you’ve destroyed evidence and besides nothing emailed is ever entirely deleted. Doing nothing leaves you in possession of “child porn.” Taking action will probably hurt somebody. You recognize you need adult advice — but where can you safely turn? Your parents might not protect your friends. You’re afraid a doctor or guidance counselor or teacher might report to law enforcement or child protective services.

Gabe: This is a very tricky situation and yes, all too common. Twenty percent of all teens admit to sending revealing photos of themselves, according to The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. Keep in mind that teenagers tend to underreport in studies about embarrassing topics, especially those with legal consequences. Seeking anonymous advice as you have done here is a good way to begin to grasp this problem. However, ours is not legal advice, so you may still want to consult a lawyer.

What I can give you are a few dos and don’ts. Do not send the picture to more people (obviously). That could bring legal action, not to mention the strained friendship between you and your female friend that will likely follow. Since you are obviously troubled by this whole situation, try talking to the sender, noting the questionable legality of the act to make sure he doesn’t repeat it in the future. Also bring up the breach of trust between him and his girlfriend. His intent could have been non-malicious, but that doesn’t matter. He broke her trust.

As to whether you tell her, it’s a balancing act between all three friendships with dynamics I cannot foresee. However, when you have your talk with your guy friend, encourage him to tell her. Hearing it from his mouth is a lot better than hearing it from someone else.

Sexting is woven into the fabric of teenage life. Most teens will encounter it in some way, shape or form. That doesn’t change the legality of it, and tricky situations like this come up where even bystanders are in legal danger.

Wes: In January 2011, Ben Markley and I wrote two back-to-back articles about sexting nude pics. The first sounded a lot like your letter. In it I wrote, “Words fail me in describing what a bad idea this is. … Storing sexually explicit images of anyone under the age of eighteen on a phone, computer or other digital device is committing an act of child pornography. … A teen may think her boyfriend is the only recipient of a special intimate picture, and that might be true. For now. Once a breakup occurs, there is no telling what may happen to the image.”

Five years hence, I appear to have been a bit hysterical. Sexting hasn’t turned out to be as legally perilous as we thought, largely due to its ubiquity. If we adjudicated all the minors who participate in sexting, we’d need to close all our schools and reopen them as juvenile detention centers.

The best and most recent example was in Cañon City, Colo. A huge number of middle and high school students were caught exchanging hundreds of naked photos with a clandestine photo vault app that appeared as the icon of a calendar on their smartphones. In closing the case, the DA said investigators did not find “aggravating factors like adults’ involvement, the posting of graphic images to the Internet, coercion and related unlawful sexual contact.” Translated, this means the kids were just having a good time. While we can all agree this doesn’t see like a very smart idea, that definition can be applied to a great many teen behaviors — substance abuse, unsafe sex, dangerous driving, etc. — that we as adults are expected to address with wise minds.

Recognizing this, 21 states have passed special laws governing explicit exchange among minors just as statutes changed to decriminalize real life underage sexual contact between older teens. That doesn’t mean you have nothing to worry about. So, next week we’ll return to this issue and discuss how to protect yourself.

Hint: It’s not nearly as difficult or scary as you propose.

— Wes Crenshaw, Ph.D., ABPP, is author of “I Always Want to Be Where I’m Not: Successful Living with ADD & ADHD.” Learn about his writing and practice at dr-wes.com. Gabe Magee is a Bishop Seabury Academy senior. Send your confidential 200-word question to ask@dr-wes.com. Double Take opinions and advice are not a substitute for psychological services.