Sexting is the distribution of a sexually explicit image of oneself to another user via information communication technology. In short, sending a nude picture of yourself to another person by phone or the internet.
This kind of behaviour is not new and could be carried out before the digital age. The problem was that one would have to take the film to the chemist to get developed before mailing the photo to the recipient – a much more arduous task. What has changed though, is the split second ability to produce and share images with potentially 3 billion people via a smartphone or other internet enabled device.
In the scheme of things sexting appears to be a seemingly simple and victimless act, however, it can destroy individuals lives, along with families, relationships and communities. How do I know this? through the countless stories that have been relayed to me from children, parents, teachers and the media.
When it comes to children, sexting is a crime.
Serious criminal offences can be committed when children engage in this practice. The Federal Criminal Code contains a definition relating to what is ‘Child Exploitation Material’. In general terms this is a picture, video or description of what is, or appears to be, a person under the age of 18 years and that material is sexually explicit in nature. As an example it can depict the breasts of a female under 18 or the genitalia of any person under 18. It is illegal to create, possess or distribute this material. These laws apply to all people in Australia from 10 years of age and up, including adults.
This behaviour is not confined to adults though. The youngest students I have addressed in relation to the topic of sexting is year 5 students. Why so young? Because a sexting issue had occurred amongst some of those students that spread throughout the school community, sending it into a spin. Importantly though, it is largely immaterial from a criminal perspective that a child engages in sexting without evil or sinister intentions or to promote the abuse of children.
When those under 18 engage in the practice of sexting they are committing serious criminal offences. Many students in Australia to date have learnt this the hard way. The enactment and spirit of the offences were never intended for children and certainly not with the internet in mind, whereby those children could create and disseminate this material so quickly. These offences were traditionally designed to target adults who were abusing children and creating child pornography for sale, trade or their own purposes.
Some of the consequences youth can face when they engage in sexting:
• Police Investigation
• Blackmail (others using the images for their own gain)
• Knowledge that others may have and control the image forever
• Extreme embarrassment
• Global humiliation
• Loss of trust amongst adults
• Disappointment from family members
Changing perspectives on sexting
When addressing 17 to 18-year-old young men about sending explicit pictures one could imagine some bravado or humour from the audience members. No matter what school is being addressed, whether male, female or co-ed from year 9 to 12, when I explain the seriousness of this behaviour you can hear a pin drop. This was surprising at first but I soon realised that the students were being forced to consider sexting from a perspective they had never been challenged to before. They truly understood the seriousness and foolishness of this practice. At the conclusion of the video presentation below I had a young man from year 12 approach and say “I had never thought about it (sexting) like that before”.
When addressing students regarding this topic it is important that they understand the legal responsibilities of themselves and others. They must consider personal consequences and to how this may affect not only themselves but close family and friends. I say this not to raise an element of fear but to empower them by delivering the facts for their consideration. They can then draw on these messages of substance and consider them when deciding what choice to make or more importantly, what choice not to make. What generally keeps our children safe online is not what they do, it’s what they choose not to do.
The illusion of privacy, anonymity and control provided by the screen can sometime encourage good people to make bad choices. Choices relating to teens and sexting can sometimes be distorted, many times being made under the following beliefs or circumstances:
• Belief it makes them mature
• Thinking that everybody is doing it
• Viewing it as not a big deal, and something funny
• Unsolicited images having been sent to them initially
• Pressure from others (either peer or blackmail)
• A need to feel liked or accepted by others
• Insufficient education to counter or manage the above
These beliefs have been formed through what is presented to children and young people on the screen and through their experience. They are not based on fact or a mature perception of acceptable community values. It is not normal behaviour. In educating young people on the issue of sexting, I have found the use of physical world analogies greatly helps young people conceptualise intangible online behaviour, choices and concepts.
Those who are best placed to protect and educate our children from the consequences of sexting are those adults who are around them and care for them on a daily basis. Parents, carers, trusted family friends, teachers and school communities. My aim is to affirm and give credibility to the beliefs, expectations and realities being passed on to children by their community.
What can we do?
So how do we protect our children from sexting when they are the ones making the choices online, taking the photos and pushing the buttons? We can educate, guide and help them to make a sound choice themselves. Here are the key things they need to know:
•Material that sexualises children is not ‘normal
• Most people, including adults, do not engage in this
• It is socially unacceptable (Laws are a reflection of what society expects)
• It is a serious criminal offence
• It is not what mature people do
• There are many unforeseen scenarios that may make what they believe is private to become very public
• People who truly care for them will never pressure or expect them to create or forward this material
No matter what we are presented with or led to believe it is good to remember that most children do not do this but that we as adults can reduce the risk further through communicating with our children. Every step we take we make a difference.
Will this practice totally disappear from the teen scene? Due to human nature and the nature of technology, probably not. We are though, well positioned and equipped to reduce the instances dramatically through our education. For every one student we can empower to avoid this practice the flow on benefits are also received by many others including the potential recipient/s, family, school and community.