Sexting refers to the electronic sending, receiving or forwarding of sexually explicit messages, photos or videos. For most teenagers, it seems to involve nude or semi-nude photographs.
The more excitable elements of the press would have us believe that sexting is something in which virtually all teenagers are involved, but in reality that is probably far from the truth. Surveys I have seen give varying estimates of the proportion of teenagers likely to be involved in sexting, and these estimates average out to around 20%.
Sexting can come about in a variety of ways. Often it will start out as a private activity between two teenagers who have or want a relationship with each other. In this case, the dangers lie chiefly in what the sexting might lead to, especially if the relationship goes sour or breaks up. The image might have been shared originally with the unspoken assumption that it was intended only for the eyes of the two people in the relationship, but the rupture of the relationship can lead to the image being circulated more widely as revenge. In such a case, it is the electronic nature of the communication that puts the incident on a level that is beyond the experience of former generations. Whereas previously, a grainy photograph might have been shown around amongst a group of friends by a jilted lover in an attempt to embarrass the other person, now the image can be made available to literally thousands of viewers in seconds, especially if the image is uploaded to a social media site.
For some, sexting comes about as a result of peer pressure. The teenager is led to believe that “everybody’s doing it” and that the route to popularity is through participation. Sadly, for a number, this is not the case, and the images become the tools to be used by unscrupulous peers in cyberbullying. For others still, sexting may be the result of coercion, perhaps from someone they have met online, who has gained their confidence and persuaded them to upload images.
The legal status of sexting depends primarily on the age of the person in the image. If they are under 18, the transmission of electronic nude images (even of oneself) is likely to be regarded in law as the distribution of child pornography. In most countries this is a very serious offence that could lead to a jail term and to having one’s name recorded on a register of sex offenders.
Having compromising pictures in circulation amongst one’s peers can be a devastating experience for a teenager. The humiliation and embarrassment of the image being circulated in one’s peer community may, of course, be short-lived. For some, however, it can lead to years of ridicule, social exclusion and loss of self-confidence. It has certainly led to some having to move and change school in an attempt to escape the fallout. In the longer-term, the virtual permanence of items on the Internet brings potential consequences that seem to elude many teenagers, but it means there is always a risk of potential universities and employers uncovering the material and in some areas that could prove fatal to a promising career.
Advice for parents
If you can help your teenager develop a strong sense of their own worth as an individual, that may help them find the strength to resist peer pressure to send images of themselves should they experience it. Similarly, a strong sense of the worth of others will provide a firm base for the way they are prepared to deal with any material that might come to them from others.
Talk honestly about sexting with your teenager. As so often seems to be the case, meaningful conversations about this issue are best conducted outside of the charged atmosphere of personal involvement in an incident. Wise parents will find opportunities to talk occasionally with their teenagers about the subject, making clear the possible consequences, such as are discussed above, that could follow from their involvement in sexting . Additionally, advise them never to send images of themselves that they wouldn’t be happy to show their granny (or whoever happens to be their favourite relative).
Your teenager receives unsolicited images of others. Given the nature of social media apps, it is quite possible that your teenager could receive images of others that they have not solicited: perhaps the material has been circulated to all members of a group of which they happen to be a member, for example. Getting them to consider how they might want a friend to act if that friend were to receive a compromising image of them might represent a way to helping them find a solution. I believe also that one of the hard lines of which teenagers should be made aware is that if they receive such material, they ought never to forward it to others.
Your teenager has already forwarded images of others before talking with you about it. Without becoming overly critical, I believe it is possible to express disappointment in your teenger’s decision-making in circumstances such as this. Seeking to have them reflect on what their action says about the value of the person in the image may be the start of a way forward. From there, I believe the emphasis should be on helping your teenager find ways to redress the situation as far as that is possible. This may include them approaching those to whom the material was sent to get them to delete it, seeking to get material removed from social media sites if it has been uploaded, involving the school authorities if the others involved are from the same school. So far as possible, I would advise seeking to make the matter a learning opportunity for your teenager, not shielding them from uncomfortable consequences but reassuring them that you are there to support them through the experience.
Your teenager has sent images of themselves to others. Initially, try not to panic, since ultimately such a reaction will likely do more harm than good to your relationship with your teenager. There are two categories of issue here: (i) what to do about trying to limit the damage; (ii) why they sent the images of themselves in the first place. The natural tendency for most of us will be to start with the second point concerning their motivation. However, by working with them firstly on the practical level of trying to limit the damage, we may enable trust to grow in them for the deeper exploration that needs to follow.
(i) Limiting the damage. This might include seeking the deletion of the images by those to whom they were sent; brokering discussion with the person to whom the images were sent and their parents; accompanying your teenager to school authorities or the police, depending on the seriousness of the incident and the ages of those involved.
(ii) Examining the motivation. I suggest that generally it would be a mistake to view the images, even if they are offered. The aim of exploring the motivation of your teenager in sending the images originally should be that of helping them to learn about themselves from what has happened and about how they might handle situations differently in future. Through such discussions, always remember that teenagers make mistakes – it’s part of growing up – and the most important thing is that they learn from their mistakes. There will be times in some families where parents might need to involve a professional to explore the underlying issues with their teenager in order for there to be a beneficial outcome from such discussions.
Advice for teachers
Restrict communication with students to official channels. The main danger for teachers with regard to sexting is that of being drawn into it unwittingly. That could happen easily if the teacher shares their personal contact details with students and is a member alongside students of groups in text apps. Simply having received the material as a member of a group means that the teacher then has on their phone compromising material of one of their students. This could be more than unfortunate for the teacher and their career if a police investigation should ensue. Using only official channels, such as a school email address, for communication with students affords the teacher a level of protection.
Be on the lookout for students who are suffering from misuse of their image. On occasion, a trusted teacher might be approached directly by a student for whom sexting has gone sour. Working with the student to find a way forward, or finding someone who is better placed to help them, will be the way forward here. However, a teacher who keeps an ear to the ground for what is happening amongst their students might well pick up on students who are suffering as a result of their image being abused online. In this case, finding an opportunity to chat quietly with the student outside class, might give the opportunity to a student who is feeling increasingly desperate to be able to unload their concerns and find help.
Have strict limits on student banter in the classroom. I suspect a number of students get drawn into sexting “for a bit of a laugh”. Classroom banter can sometimes carry undertones that could contribute to pressure being brought to bear on individuals to participate in sexting. No one wants to lose the opportunity for a class to laugh together at times, providing individuals are not being targeted and ridiculed, but it would be tragic for a teacher to discover subsequently that the banter in their class had been used to pressure individuals into participating in sexting and that it had become a tool for subsequent cyberbullying. Clear limits that disallow inappropriate banter help provide a safe environment for all students in a class.