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Technology, peer pressure and sexual curiosity has ushered in the age of 'sexting'. Photo: Getty Images

Sexting, a name given for the creating and sharing of sexually explicit pictures or messages through mobile phones, the internet and other electronic devices, has become an increasingly recognised and concerning pastime of children.

It is estimated that in 2012, over 20% of teenagers engaged in sexting, with a higher prevalence reported among girls. In a survey carried out by a popular girls magazine in 2010, around 40% of girls reported that they had been asked to send sexually explicit photos of themselves, with the majority of girls complying, citing fears about disappointing or aggravating their male peers as reasons for engaging in sexting.

Along with the negative emotional consequences that often accompany sexting experiences, such as feelings of embarrassment, regret and anxiety, are also an increased vulnerability to being exposed to cyberbullying and more serious legal ramifications.

Current legislation states that the taking, sending, receiving or possessing of naked or semi-naked images of someone under the age of 18 years can lead to a child pornography charge and placement on the Sex Offenders Register. Australian law does not distinguish between sexting and more serious sexual crimes such as paedophilia and there are no minimum age requirements, such that a young person under 18 years can be charged and placed on the Register.

Sexting between consenting persons always carries the risk of being made more public and attracting cyberbullying attacks. For example, images may be passed through social networking sites without consent and attract derogatory, abusive and vicious attack. Cyberbullying can have a significant impact on young people, with the potential for reputations to be destroyed and for young people to experience social isolation and depression as a consequence.

Why do young people engage in sexting in the first place 

A common question among clinicians, teachers and parents is why do young people engage in sexting when the consequences for doing so seem so negative?

Some answers commonly given by our young clients are that they do not view semi naked and naked images as wrong or shameful, typically viewing these images as more of an expression of fun and flirtation.

Developmentally, expressing oneself sexually in the teenage years is considered to be common and normal. With recent statistics showing us that around 78% of Australian students between Years 10 to 12 engage in some form of sexual activity, sexting appears to be one way our young people are expressing their sexuality.

Additionally, young people are seeing images of their role models engaging in sexting themselves (eg. sports celebrities), such that there is a culture of acceptance and a visible lack of understanding around the real consequences so often involved in sexting experiences.

This raises an interesting question as to what safe and secure ways young people can be expressing their sexuality without attaching shame, negativity and embarrassment to the experience?

Some positive ways parents can address sexting are:

1. Discuss the issue of consent with your young person: Saying “no” in the face of peer pressure is a difficult territory for young people to navigate. Help your child identify times in which they may be exposed to peer pressure (eg. parties) and what they can do to resist the peer pressure, such as seek out a helpful friend, make an excuse to exit the party, say “no” assertively.

2. Educate yourself: Young people are typically very savvy with technology and it is up to parents to be vigilant and learn about new technologies and stay up to date with the latest trends. When young people have the privilege of having a phone or device from a young age, conditions must also be implemented to protect the young person’s safety, such as parental monitoring of the phone.

3. Educate young people: Discuss with your child the social, emotional and legal risks associated with sexting and the possible future consequences. Make a plan with your child rather than lecturing them, get them to come up with what is appropriate and discuss openly any times they have engaged in sexting and the reasons for doing so, such as being peer pressured. Overcome your embarrassment about talking to your kids about sex and how they can protect themselves and keep your emotions calm.

4. Help your young person to stop and assess: develop clear boundaries around what your young person can and can’t do on a device and help them develop a clear understanding of what they should do if taking a selfie and/or receiving a sexually inappropriate message. For example, wait and think before sending, assess whether the image could be inappropriate in any way, show a parent before sending or upon receiving an image that could be inappropriate.

5. Engage school support: Schools have a variety of supports that can be helpful when addressing sexting among young people. For example, schools often have access to a Police Liaison Officer, who can be engaged to discuss sexting and cyberbullying with the students and be involved in individual cases if need be. As cyberbullying frequently involves peers, schools can aid parents in addressing the problem if it arises.

6. Address things when they arise: Be alert for any signs that your young person is engaging in or receiving sexually explicit images. Often parents hope that the issue will resolve itself, however, picking up early warning signs that your young person is engaging in sexting can lead to to far better outcomes. You may be prompted to open up communication with your child about sexting if they are being more secretive and defensive around their device, agitated after using their device, selective around what pictures they show you, withdrawing from friends and seeming depressed for example.

Balancing young people’s right to privacy and their right to safety is one of the many challenges parents face. Providing focused guidance and support around how young people can use their devices in a safe and responsible manner needs to be an ongoing conversation in our families.

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This article was first published by The Quirky Kid clinic.