Teens & sexting: how to keep them safe
Four experts share their insights and advice with Sarah Marinos.
Last year a group of high school students indecently assaulted a classmate in school toilets so they could film the attack and post the shocking footage online. A pornography ring targeted girls from 70 high schools across Australia and shared their naked images online. And police investigated a private school in Melbourne after boys posted photos on Instagram to ‘slut shame’ teenage girls.
Experts say up to half of teenagers may have sent or received explicit texts, with some children being exposed to sexting during their primary school years. Worryingly, 88 per cent of the sexual images teenagers send are then shared – informally dubbed ‘revenge porn’.
Here, four experts in the field share their insights into teenagers and sexting, and how to deal with this challenging issue. “The internet is part of who kids are and sexting is common for teenagers because they don’t have the brain development to understand consequences. They can’t see how what they do today might affect them in the future. The internet moved sex into the public realm but we haven’t given young people the rules of engagement.
When a photo is shared, the young person in that photo is traumatised. It’s a form of abuse. Their body has been seen by other people and they’ve had no control over that. This affects self-esteem, relationships and trust. I think a good proportion of the increase in anxiety in young people today is due to these social challenges.
Parents need to talk with their children about what can happen once they share a photo or sext. Even if a teenager feels that they love the person they’re texting today, they don’t know what will happen to that photo tomorrow.
Teach children to be proud of who they are, and part of that is respecting your body and being in control of when and if someone sees it. You wouldn’t walk down the street with no clothes on in the real world and you shouldn’t do that in the virtual world.
If someone sends your child a photo, remind them not to share that photo out of respect for the person in the picture. But if your child says they’ve sent or shared an image, don’t make them feel any worse than they already do by blaming them. It’s another error of judgment that teens make all the time.”
“In my experience, more than 50 per cent of teenagers have sent or received a naked photo. Children share nude photos for three main reasons – because they want to do it and don’t understand the consequences, or they’re coerced and pressured, or they are groomed by a predator.
I think celebrity culture and social media play a big part – at the ARIA Awards in November, The Veronicas were topless. Kids may feel empowered in the short term, but it sends a poor message to young girls that to be accepted or popular, you’re meant to be naked. It’s extremely sad if you put a value on yourself based on being naked.
Most pressure to share nudes comes from boys towards girls, although in the past 12 months we’ve seen a shift towards girls pressuring boys too. Once images are out there, people can be bullied about them.
But there are possible legal consequences too. A naked image of a person under 18 is potentially child pornography so anyone taking part in sexting these kinds of images can be charged with making, possessing and transmitting child pornography.
They could be placed on the Child Sex Offenders Register. That can mean they must keep police informed of their whereabouts for a certain amount of time, job opportunities are limited, and travel to some countries, such as the US, isn’t allowed. They could remain on the register for up to eight years.
Parents need to talk to their children about consent and coercion and ensure they ask for help if someone harasses them for photos. When you hand over an electronic device, set rules about how it is used and deactivate the camera for children of primary school age. And if your child is involved in an incident, don’t threaten to block, ban or take away their device – then they’ll never tell you when they have a problem.” “No parent wants to think of their child posting explicit images of themselves – but they are. So, parents need a harm-minimisation approach. Saying ‘don’t’ doesn’t work.
You need to explain to your son or daughter that if they choose to share an explicit image, that photo could be shared with people whom they
don’t want to see it. Use stories that appear in the media to raise the issue and to ensure kids know that once an image is shared, it can’t be erased.
But at the same time, we don’t want to shame young people who do send photos. While it’s not our experience, dating and flirting happens more online for today’s teenagers.
Discuss moral obligations too – if your child is sent a photo that is being shared, what would they do? Talk about never feeling pressured to do something – let them know that if someone is using a photo to bully, blame, shame or coerce them into something, that’s not okay.
And never smugly think ‘none of this will happen to my child’. It’s the world our kids live in and it happens much more than we care to think.”