Sexting, online bullying: teen girls say it happens every day

Online bullying of teenagers creates a sense of despair, as images placed online are there forever.
Online bullying of teenagers creates a sense of despair, as images placed online are there forever.  

Marina, now 25, clearly remembers the first time a friendly online exchange became unwanted sexual suggestions. She was about 13 and swapping messages with someone in an online chat room for kids. "It went very quickly from what books I liked and what I like to do, to how did I look and what he'd like to do to me."

In her later teens, she says, it became "pretty common" for mild flirting to escalate very fast into both demands for intimate pictures or unwanted "dick pics".

"No build-up or flirtation and they're sending you pictures of their dick." 

These days, Marina says, she is better at shutting down unwanted online requests, but as a teenager her response was to feel she should go offline, or hide. She says there is a definite need for schools to talk about what's OK online, and not just in the annual sex education classes, but as a regular part of the curriculum.

"Campaigns like those messages on the back of toilet doors help, and anything that personalises it, like sharing on Facebook when it happens. A lot of guys think, 'I'm nice, I wouldn't do anything to women' but when you talk about your own experiences among a group of friends they do stop and think."

Teenage girls call for action on online harassment

New research has found teenage girls are calling for more action to tackle both online bullying and pressure to share explicit images, with most saying these have become common experiences.

Many also blamed online pornography for negatively impacting on young men's attitudes towards sex, and called for school sex ed programs to include discussion and criticism of pornography.

A recent survey found 70 per cent of girls aged 15 to 19 were often bullied or harassed online and 58 per cent of those interviewed also said girls often received uninvited indecent or sexually explicit material including texts, videos and pornography.


Sexting, or sending intimate pictures of themselves to others, also caused concern, with 51 per cent saying girls were often pressured into sexting, despite most saying it was wrong. More than 80 per cent said it was unacceptable for a boyfriend to ask for a naked photo.

And despite recent public information campaigns and efforts in schools, most girls said they felt much less able to tackle online bullying than they did harassment that occurred outside cyberspace (44 per cent said they did not feel comfortable reporting online harassment).

The survey, commissioned by children's right organisation Plan International Australia and anti violence against women group Our Watch, also asked about 600 teenage girls what they thought would help improve their intimate relationships and feelings of safety. More than a third of those surveyed called for more education on sexuality and respectful relationships.

Plan Australia's deputy chief executive Susanne Legena​ said she was genuinely shocked by the findings, but hoped they would help to start conversations between parents and their children and among teenagers.

"That more than half the girls said they often felt pressured to take sexy photos, despite so many saying this was wrong. The same rules and standards don't seem to apply online as in the offline world."

Ms Legena said the most disturbing aspect of the findings was the sense of resignation by those interviewed, who seemed to understand that such harassment online was wrong, but accepted that it was happening.

"People often don't feel they can do anything to stop this but the key message is that people can do something about it. You can block someone, you can change your privacy settings, you can report it."

Parents need to learn about online bullying

She said it was important for parents who had not grown up with social media to understand that bullying and harassment online included more subtle forms, such as posting photos of events that people were excluded from and so-called revenge porn, where former partners forwarded explicit images that had been meant only for them.

"Rather than a bad night that your friends might tease you about for a while and forget, now these images are there forever. That's what causes this sense of despair. You might not want these images cropping up when you're going for a job or in 10 years time when you're a parent."

Our Watch chief executive Mary Barry said the research had important lessons for educators and parents to talk to their children about relationships, sex, consent and what it meant to cross the line both online and off. She said online bullying could cause young people to have lower self-esteem, not want to go to school and even lead to depression.

Ms Barry said there was a clear need for state governments to further fund comprehensive approaches to Respectful Relationships Education inclusive of online bullying, harassment and the impact of pornography. 

"As part of a whole school approach – which not only provides in-class education, but addresses the school culture, policies and procedures, and promotes gender equity within the staffing body – students will grow into adults who can have relationships that are safe, respectful and equal."