The term ‘sexting’, although relatively new, describes a particular set of behaviours that have been occurring in Australia for over 5 years. The sending and receiving of sexually explicit images via mobile phones or other applications such as instant messaging, email or through social networking sites, has until recently gone relatively unreported. What is concerning however, is the rapidly increasing popularity of these activities. Years ago, the images being circulated were often obtained under coercion or threat. Young girls in particular were tricked into sending naked or semi-naked images of themselves to keep in favour with their boyfriend. It was often an extension of ‘I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.’ Explicit images were  often taken when the victim was not in a position to make a good decision such as at a party where large amounts of alcohol had been consumed.

What we are currently seeing however, is young females willingly filming themselves or readily agreeing to be filmed by their friends and then allowing the images to be sent, or actually sending the images themselves to other people or posting them into cyberspace. Reasons given for their behaviours include, ‘to impress a boy’, to ‘feel sexy’ or to ‘flirt’ Adolescents cannot comprehend, nor are they aware of the actual consequences of their actions. Once in cyberspace, these images can never be erased and can be transmitted around the world in a very short space of time. Whilst the immediate fallout for the young girl featured in the pictures include ridicule by her peers and those in her immediate vicinity, e.g. local schools and communities, the reality is that these images could very well find their way onto the computers of those with a predilection to engage in  sexual acts with children. Studies have shown that access to these images, can cause a person to act out what once was just a fantasy with the resulting horrendous consequences.

Cyberspace is not age appropriate and behaviours emerging in our children today are not developmentally aligned. Primary School Principals for example are expected to know how to deal with behaviours never before seen in primary school age children. In many cases, the overt and inappropriate, sexual behaviours,  have been  copied from that viewed online.

Secondary Schools are having to deal with these types of issues on a regular basis and teachers and principals are lacking in knowledge and training.  Most feel out of their depth and struggle to deal with the actuality of the situation. Schools often have to deal with all the ‘stars’ of the movie or picture, as well as the often large number of other students who by virtue of having had possession of or transmitted the image can be dragged into a Police investigation.

Whilst it is clear that the majority of these images can be defined as child pornography, we must ask ourselves if prosecution is always the best option. Whilst schools have an obligation to report under mandatory reporting guidelines, it is imperative that once in receipt of such a report, law enforcement agencies approach the investigation in a sensitive and compassionate manner. Young people need the opportunity to be educated in relation to these issues as a conviction and subsequent listing on the sex offenders register is a catastrophic outcome for a young person who often, did not know any better. Prevention is better than prosecution and if we can prevent young people from engaging in these activities, we will as a result, have fewer offenders and fewer offences being committed.

The community as a whole must take some responsibility and blame for the actions of today’s youth. The early sexualisation of young people is promoted everywhere and in most cases, popular culture simply endorses it. Many of the females idolised by today’s children exude sex and sexuality at every opportunity. Impressionable and vulnerable young people are ‘brainwashed’ into believing that they need to copy the actions of these ‘role models’ without giving any thought to the possible consequences.

Parents too must accept some responsibility for this phenonomen as often, young people are handed the technology with little or no guidance or supervision. It is imperative that all parents embrace technology for the valuable tool that it is and engage with their children in cyberspace as well as in the real world. Parents should know where their children go and what they do online the same as in their day to day life.  Communication is the key and rules and boundaries about acceptable online behaviours must be put in place. Never threaten total disconnection or removal of technology as punishment for a problem that might arise online. International and Australian research clearly shows that the majority of young people will not tell a parent if they are bullied or harassed online for fear of losing access.  You must encourage your child to tell you about any problems they are having online, or mistakes they have made without fear of further punishment in the form of removal of access

All adults entrusted with the care of our children, parents, teachers and other professionals must be educated and empowered so that they are able to guide and assist the children in their care. More importantly, young people must be given the opportunity to gain the knowledge and skills to safely navigate cyberspace, to identify risk and take appropriate steps to keep themselves safe. Arrest and prosecution is not always the correct answer, nor should we see it as an acceptable solution to this problem.

The internet and cyberspace is permanent. Once images have been posted, they are there forever and no one can get them back. ‘Sexting is like a new puppy…… it’s for life, not just for Christmas!’

Author: Susan Mclean

Susan McLean, cyber bullying expert will be talking about Practical Strategies that can be used to combat cyber bullying at the Mental Health and Wellbeing of Young People Seminars held around Australia by Generation Next. For details and registration go to Mental Health & Wellbeing of Young People.