Is it ever safe to ‘sext’?

The short answer is probably, no. But it’s more complex than that.

Sharing intimate images consensually isn’t a new phenomenon, in fact, the term ‘sexting’ was first used by the media a decade ago to describe the sharing of nude and nearly nude images using text messages and now video by young people, including teens. In 2017 Netsafe (NZ), The Office of the eSafety Commissioner (Australia) and UK Safer Internet Centre with the University of Plymouth (UK) collaborated to research the issues related to the creation and sharing of ‘sexts’ by young people aged between 14-17.

While adults and the media often use the term ‘sexting’ to describe the creating and sharing of naked images young people don’t. Rather, they refer to them as ‘hot pics’, ‘nudes’, ‘naked pics’ and other more explicit terms. 

The report defined “sexting” ‘as an act related to sending, receiving, requesting or being asked for mostly, but not always, self-generated images or video. These behaviours may arise for a variety of reasons (e.g., volunteering an image, being asked for one, part of “courtship” or to intimidate or abuse).’

The study found 1 in 3 teens admitted to experiencing at least one form of sexting behaviour such as sending, receiving, being asked for (or asking someone else for) this type of material and only 5 per cent had actually sent a nude or semi-nude image of themselves.

Across all three countries, more girls received images without requesting them than boys. They were also asked more frequently for images of themselves. In Australia, girls are almost 3 times more likely to receive requests than boys (21% of girls vs. 8% of boys) and the most likely source of the request to share an image is from a stranger.

The eSafety Commissioner in Australia explains, ‘To teens, sexting may feel flirty, fun, chaste and rational. What seems irrational is the panic this instils in their parents and the fall out that can ensue when sexting goes wrong. Not only can sexting lead to significant emotional and psychological impacts on young people but there can be long-term reputational and legal implications as well.’

What is important for parents to know is that not all ‘sexting’ incidents end badly as most of it occurs between those in existing relationships or a small number of ‘sexting’ partners, consensually. However, once that image is shared the sender loses control over who can view it as it can be ‘copied, saved and posted on social media and public websites for friends, family and strangers to see’ with little or no chance of removing or deleting it.

But there are significant consequences that need to be considered with some people experiencing image-based abuse or sextortion. The Cyberbullying Research Center defines sextortion as the ‘threatened dissemination of explicit, intimate, or embarrassing images of a sexual nature without consent: usually for the purpose of procuring additional images, sexual acts, or money’. 

Consensual sexting has the potential to be a safe, fun, and natural thing for young consenting partners to engage in. “If we consider the entire range of stupid and risky things that teens sometimes do, I don’t think sexting is top of the list.” (Eileen Kennedy-Moore). What really needs to be changed in order for our children to be safe from the dangers of sexting is the culture of consent and digital privacy. 

Preventing harm and protecting young people, who are often impulsive and act without considering the consequences of their actions is the role parents can play. Helping them understand the risks and managing them can be done in a multiple of ways. Send ‘noods’ or ‘foods’ not ‘nudes’ is one alternative strategy. As are Zipit or Send This Instead which are free anti-sexting apps that give young people access to a gallery of images and GIFs they can send in response to requests for sexual pictures and shut down difficult sexting situations using humour. 

If the young person is not feeling very confident saying NO to a request for a ‘sext’ then these seem like a good solution and defuse the tension they are experiencing. 

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