It's the same as it ever was...
It may surprise some parents that young people's behaviour online is very similar to their behaviour offline (and similar to their parents' behaviour when they were their age!) They talk, they joke, they gossip, they show off, they test boundaries, they support each other, they are sexually adventurous and they flirt. And in the era of smartphones, some of them send sexts. A sext is a sexualised image/video of the sender sent via text, social media message or email – breaking it down into parent-speak, a 'sexy text-message'.
Sexting itself is not necessarily harmful, and many sexts are exchanged in a consensual, non-threatening and enjoyable way. But problems can arise when people are pressured into sending images or videos of themselves, are unable to give consent (e.g. are under 18) , or when those images or videos are forwarded on or shown to others without their consent (NB: it can be a criminal offence to even threaten forwarding on an intimate image of someone to others if that person believes you will carry out the threat).
The patterns of abuse in the online world are similar to the patterns of sexual abuse in the real world. It is more likely to be males who put pressure on females to send them a sext or who use the images or videos abusively. And it's most likely that female's images or videos are abused. We even see the old, unfair pattern of young women being blamed when somebody else leaks their private images or videos.
Victims of abuse are not responsible for their abuse, and victim-blaming only makes things worse for them. Instead of victim-blaming, or trying to 'outlaw' sexting it's going to be more effective to talk with kids about not feeling pressured to sext and avoiding the potential pitfalls.
So, the first step is starting the conversation...
Sitting down to dinner and suddenly coming out with "So, who here has ever taken naked photos of themselves?" is NOT a good starter. Pick a time and place that suits having a relaxed and casual conversation, maybe going for a walk, or on a drive somewhere (this is a good approach if you think they might get up and walk away – hard to do when they're strapped into a moving vehicle!) Remember, this talk is not about laying down the rules – it's about getting them to think about what can go wrong and how to play it safe.
The next step is to talk to your kids about the risks when people...
- feel pressured into sending images/videos of themselves and haven't thought about the risks first, eg. Do they trust the person they're sending it to, or have they considered just how long this image will exist, i.e. potentially forever, and where it could end up.
- forward other people's images for revenge, to hurt someone or because they think it's a compliment or funny, and fail to consider the consequences. Forwarding images of someone can be incredibly damaging and illegal – be aware of the legal consequences of sexting by visiting lawstuff.org.au and checking your state or territory laws.
- automatically forward an image when they receive them because 'everybody else is'. Play it safe and instead of sending it on, just delete the image.
- leave a relationship without getting their images or videos deleted from the ex's devices.
- include their faces, identifiable marks or tattoos in images of themselves
- use apps like Snapchat thinking their image will automatically be deleted after viewing, when people can still take screenshots and save the image.
- If you want somebody to remove your image, ask them directly, get help from other people or, if it's being displayed on social media, contact site administrators. If things have already gone beyond that it could be time to look at getting some legal advice.
- Help others by removing unwanted posts or images
- Ask others to stop sending unwanted posts/messages of people who don't want their images forwarded
Sexting can be a part of a healthy sexual relationship. To solve issues around the misuse of personal images, we don't need to ban sexting or ban young people from technology. We need to keep talking about complex social issues like this, spread awareness and build a strong culture that respects people's rights both online and offline.
For related information, and for resources that could be good to send to your kids as conversation starters, look at our other articles about technology and communication.