Did you know that one in three teens has had their own explicit image used against them?
This startling statistic comes from a survey of 12,000 students across Australia at a Generation Next teen wellbeing event held in March.
It’s also the area of expertise of cyber safety expert and founder of Internet Safe Education, former police officer and detective in the field of Child Exploitation, Brett Lee.
Lee is a passionate educator of children and adults around the dangers of sexting and the impacts that it can have on a young person’s life.
From his experience as an educator, Lee can see how issues like sexting are affecting young people. In fact, the target group for his programs has changed.
“When I started speaking in schools five years ago it was targeted to Year 11 and 12,” Lee tells Mamamia. “But now we are addressing sexting issues with kids in Years 7 to 10. Years ago it was never that age group. Younger kids now have access to technology.”
But ahead of that, he gave Mamamia a 101 for parents worried about the pitfalls of sexting.
According to Lee, sexting is classified as “the distribution of a sexually explicit image of a user to another user via information and communication technology”.
When a young person engages in sexting, their intention is that it’s private. But the internet is not private and thus exposes many young people to predatory behaviour, embarrassment and even criminal charges if they are in the receipt of graphic images of someone under 16 (18 federally).
Almost all young people say they regret having sexted images of themselves.
“I have surveyed large numbers of teenagers,” says Lee. “And asked if you believed your images were going to become public, how many would take them back? 96 percent said they would. It’s this perception they can control who is going to see it that makes them most vulnerable. They don’t see the risk or the consequences. An image can be created in a split second. Then shared in a split second to a billion people and then shared forever.”
Peer pressure is a major contributor to young people sending graphic images of themselves. In addition to this, pornography plays a role in influencing the way some young men treat women as sexual objects and pressure them into sending “nudes”.
“A lot of mistakes are made through fear or pressure,” says Lee. “The community should never believe this is a normal practice or normal behaviour. I am certainly not saying that the young people doing it aren’t normal – it’s become something of a rite of passage, and it exposes a young person to a situation where they can suffer regret. They can be blackmailed. They can also go on to experience mental distress. The potential risk is dramatic.”
According to Generation Next’s recent survey on sexting, many teenagers do not actually engage in sexting. However, the fact that it is normalised as an everyday activity in our culture means parents can implicitly be endorsing it if they portray it as too “normal”. And that can lead to all kinds of dangers.
What many don’t realise is the criminality involved with sending and receiving graphic images of underage subjects. It falls under child exploitation – and in Queensland last year 150 teenagers were arrested under the criminal offence.
While young people may send images intended for the receipt of one person, there may be more sinister forces at play.
“Images and videos are the most prized possessions of paedophiles,” says Lee, who as a police officer in Child Protection went undercover to catch offenders in the act of procuring images from children.
“When I was an undercover detective on the internet, a predator would encourage me to send a sexually explicit image of me and then use it against me to get me to meet him.”
Lee is adamant that when it comes to sexting it’s important to remember: “This isn’t about technology, this is about people. It can involve threats, embarrassment, intimidation and bullying.”
So how can parents and educators help protect children against the potential harms of sexting? Communication and education is the best way forward. Lee believes that young people have to be able to make those choices in the absence of parental controls.
“When a child walks out of the home with a data plan and a smart phone if they chose to sext, we can’t stop that,” Lee says. “But what we can do effectively is install mindsets, create an environment where a young person thinks, ‘I could do that but I won’t do it’. It’s the only avenue we really have. There are filtering and monitoring programs that can make you aware, but nothing works better than education.”
Open communication with parents is the way forward. And if a parent or carer does discover their young person has been sexting, it’s important not to overreact.
“You need to get them to consider the risks. We shouldn’t underestimate that young people can make these decisions themselves. It could be a simple conversation like, ‘Imagine if your grandma saw this’,” he adds.
Lee also suggests lowering risk by removing phones from bedrooms at night. Take the phone out from 8pm to 8am, he recommends.
“By doing this you reduce the risk by 50 percent in one day. If they don’t have technology then they can’t sext. It’s also always more likely to occur in a private space,” Lee says.
The key factor in creating safety for young people is education, not just for young people, but for all, Lee maintains.
Parents and professionals who are informed provide better support than those who aren’t, and can instigate and engage in non-judgemental communications that may help a young person make an important choice on their own.
As part of Generation Next’s Mental Health and Wellbeing of Young People seminar series, Brett Lee will be conducting a free live webcast on Friday, May 25 from 3.55pm to 4.30pm (AEST). Mamamia readers can register prior to the webcast to watch here.
– Mandy Nolan