Is Your Teen At Risk?
1 in 5 teenagers have been asked for a nude or nearly nude image of themselves within the past year (1)
1 in 20 teenagers have sent nude or nearly images of themselves to someone else within the past year (1)
Teenagers with disabilities are more likely to be asked for nude images of themselves and receive unsolicited nude images than those without disabilities (1)
In certain circumstances, sexting can be considered a crime (3)
When sexting involves someone who is under the age of 18 can be considered child pornography; even if the recipient is also under 18 (3)
88% of self-generated images end up on other sites (5)
7% of all child pornography arrests are teenagers (2)
Sexting refers to the sending of sexual content to another person via text or social media. This content can vary from texts detailing sexual behaviours to nude images or videos. While many people view it as a new phenomenon that was instigated by today’s digitally deviant youth, it’s actually a natural, technological progression of behaviours that previous generations have participated in (such as phone sex, or sexually nuanced telegraphs and love letters).
What makes sexting singularly concerning is the fact that, unlike a private phone conversation on a landline, it can be done instantaneously, on a whim, and with little consideration of the potential consequences. As clinical psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore (PhD), states “…teens sext because they can. Their phones are right there. It’s easy to take a picture and send it with just a couple of clicks. It seems naughty and exciting and grown-up”.
Sexting also has a sense of permanence and content can be easily distributed by the recipient to a large body of people. This fear-inducing reality justifiably has parents, teachers, and legal authorities deeply concerned about sexting.
While these concerns are warranted, they also have a tendency to be misplaced. The primary dangers of sexting aren’t inherently related to the fact that people want to participate in the sharing of nude images with someone, but rather they’re related to matters of digital privacy and consent. Of course, in the context of minors, this can become an infinitely more complex and serious issue.
Australian national law dictates that instances of sexting involving a person under the age of 18 can be seen either as child pornography or an indecent act; even if the recipient is under 18 themselves. Therefore, children involved in sexting could face jail-time and have their names listed on the sex offenders register (4).
The Dangers of Sexting | Real Life Examples
In Western Australia, a 14-year-old boy downloaded a video to his mobile phone of a 14-year-old girl having sex with two boys. The video was shared around his school. The boy was then charged with child pornography offences (4).
A 12-year-old girl from South England was targeted by an online predator. She was pressured to send her groomer topless photos. Authorities were not able to locate the paedophile because he was using an anonymous account. However, local police warned the girl that she may now face criminal charges and have a permanent criminal record on the basis that she created and shared explicit images of a child – despite the fact she was the victim of online grooming. (6)
Child pornography is a deeply serious issue, but it is ultimately a separate issue from that of consensual youth sexting. “Young people should not be categorised as ‘producers’ and ‘distributors’ of their own pornography. Instead, young people should be free to express their sexual selves as they desire.” (6)
It makes sense to want to protect our children from humiliation or scorn, but does it really make sense to place blame for a breach of privacy and trust on the person who sent the nude privately, instead of on the person who shared it publicly? So much of the narrative surrounding sexting is focussed on saying “what were you thinking?” to people who participated in sexting, while so little of it is concerned with this apparent disregard for digital privacy and consent.
Believing that the best way to protect teenagers and young adults from the potential dangers of sexting is to ban or make illegal the consensual youth sexting is entrenched in the same problematic ideologies that we too often see in the context of sex-related crimes. In fact, in many ways, it contributes to a wider rape culture. As Amy Adele Hasinoff, author of the book Sexting Panic, says; “it doesn’t make sense to try and ban all sexting to try to address privacy violations. This is kind of like saying, ‘let’s solve the problem of date rape by just making dating completely illegal’…”
Of course, consent is the operative word in all of this. Sending nude images to someone who does not want them or coercing someone into sending you nude images does not constitute consensual sexting, and should be treated as a separate issue.
“Collecting nude photos of girls can be a status symbol for teen boys — something to brag about to their friends. For girls, the issue can be more complicated. They may risk ‘slut shaming’ if they send a nude photo or being branded as a prude or ‘stuck-up’ if they don’t.” – Eileen Kennedy-Moore.
Consensual sexting has the potential to be a safe, fun, and natural thing for young consenting adults 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. Parents need to be aware of trends such as “send nudes”, and, “pics or it didn’t happen” that perpetuate dangerous and unhealthy youth behaviours; while teenage girls are often under a lot of pressure to send revealing photos of themselves, teenage boys are under a lot of pressure to prove that they’ve been the recipient of such photos.
In order to truly address the potential dangers of sexting, we need to focus our narrative more on holding those who distribute content without consent accountable. Teaching young people that any negative outcome of sharing private details with someone they believe they can trust is their own fault is unfair and can constitute victim blaming. Furthermore, we need to make an effort to be understanding and curious about the social culture that our children are immersed in, rather than judgmental. Dr. Delaney Ruston believes that “being curious about ‘the pictures culture’ can make for much better conversations (with teenagers)”.
Sexting is contemporary youth issue that certainly warrants concern and caution but also requires a major shift in public perception. The finding that only 1 in every 20 teens will send a nude image of themselves serves as evidence that, contrary to popular belief, sexting is not something that ‘everyone is doing’ (1). The reality is that the pressure to engage in sexting is far more prevalent than the practice of it (1), and it should, therefore, be a priority to help teenagers to navigate and overcome this pressure.
For further advice on how to support your teen, please refer to the So You Got Naked Online brochure. This is a helpful resource for teenagers and parents that offers advice and explores strategies to support the issues resulting from sexting incidents.