You may have faced this scenario before: anguished parents turn up in your rooms and plead with you for help: their cherished teenager, they find, is now sending and/or receiving sexually explicit text messages, photos, or videos. Oh, what to do?

Unfortunately, this phenomenon is now common and increasing in frequency, even as the average age of the sexter goes down. Survey research has shown that between 20 and 50 percent of teens have admitted to sexting, with over 60% stating that they did not realise they had violated child pornography laws (Burns, 2017; Griffin, 2014; Net Nanny, 2018). Even more worrying, between 79 and 90% of teens responded in surveys that nothing bad had happened when they sexted; thus, they shrugged off warnings of any danger (Peek, 2014; Woda, 2015). We look at what sexting is, why they do it, the many serious consequences that flow from it, and what you can do to help parents.

Definition

The term “sext” has been in use since 2005 and is defined as “transmitting sexually explicit messages, using a computer or mobile device. Sexting can include text messages, photos, and videos” (Net Nanny, 2018).

Why they do it

Commentators generally agree that there are numerous reasons why young people engage in sexting. They are consistent with this list, mostly compiled by Dr Maureen Griffin, an Irish forensic psychologist who has spoken with adolescents while visiting over 300 schools across Ireland:

  1. To construct their sexual identity online (when a teen posts publicly on their own profile)
  2. Because of pressure from their girlfriend/boyfriend (a big reason for teens just starting to develop their sense of self, or teens whose self-esteem may be shaky)
  3. As a means of demonstrating commitment in a relationship; sexts are a form of “relationship currency”
  4. Because they are imitating celebrities they may follow on sites such as Twitter or Instagram; much has been written about the sexualisation of Western culture (see Van Maren, 2016).
  5. To show off or get attention; as a joke
  6. To entice someone or flirt with someone they fancy
  7. Because they are being groomed by an adult
  8. As a result of exposure to pornography online, where nude, sexy images become normalised, and thus contribute to the sharing or demanding of self-generated images (Griffin, 2014).
  9. Because they aren’t thinking. The pre-frontal cortex part of the brain (responsible for problem-solving, impulse control, and weighing up options) is not fully developed in adolescence, and will not mature until the early to mid-twenties (Lohmann, 2012)

Unfortunately, sexting is a phenomenon that is probably here to stay due to the “perfect storm” of teens’ natural (developmental) interest in sex, an adolescent impulse to experiment, and apps that make sexing easy, accessible, and acceptable. That doesn’t make it a good or safe option, however.  Let’s look at the troubling consequences that can follow the fairly innocent act of a teen (let’s say a girl) sending a nude photo of herself to her boyfriend.

The troubling consequences: Social, emotional, legal

Let’s say the parents coming to you for help have stated that, when they found the nude picture of their daughter on her phone as part of the thread of text conversation with her boyfriend (meaning, already-sent text messages), she assured them that she only sent it to her one-and-only. They have been dating for a year now, and the parents believe that the boy is a fairly level-headed, mature boy who doesn’t really get into much trouble. Can they be assured, they ask, that the situation is not so serious? Unfortunately, the answer is probably no – and maybe not because the boy is a “bad influence”.  But here is the grim reality of what can happen when the “send” button gets pushed.

The sext can be shared with people the daughter didn’t intend to share it with

This can happen deliberately (let’s say the boyfriend is proud of how beautiful his girlfriend is, and wants to show off to his mates, so he sends the image to a couple of them), or it can happen accidentally, such as when someone else may use the phone and stumble on the image. Either way, the photo is likely to be forwarded on at some stage. A recent study by the Internet Watch Foundation showed that up to 88% of self-generated images have been collected and put onto other sites (Griffin, 2014).

Revenge porn

If the daughter ever breaks up with her boyfriend, he could very well forward it to many people or post it to a site as a way of humiliating or getting even with her for breaking up.

It might go viral

If the photo is leaked online, the daughter has officially lost all control of it. It can now be posted and re-posted to any number of sites, including adult ones, where anyone can save it and use if for their own ends.

The daughter’s reputation could be seriously jeopardised

The disapproval generated can mean a serious loss of respect from peers and others, even if they enjoy looking at the photos. And if the school authorities find it…

Adults could see the sext

The daughter could be (many students have been) suspended or expelled from school or had their phones confiscated when school authorities have reason to believe that there is sexting behaviour. Beyond that, there are many embarrassing situations she could find herself in: like, what if her part-time after-school employer, the neighbours she routinely babysits for, or the school coach find the image? A good rule of thumb is that if teens would not like their grandmother to see a given image, it’s better not to send it.

It could backfire

She might have sent the photo hoping to spice up her relationship or because she thought her boyfriend would like her more. Sadly, the opposite is often true; the other person gets turned off instead.

There can be serious emotional difficulties

Many are the stories such as those of Jessica Logan, an 18-year-old from Ohio, who sent nude images of herself to her boyfriend. When they broke up, he forwarded the pictures to other girls, who started harassing her, calling her a “slut” and a “whore”. Jessica became depressed and two months later hanged herself in her bedroom (Puresight, 2011). This is only one story; many are to be found on internet sites about the dangers of sexting. The emotional burden is simply too much for some teens to bear when things go awry.  But apart from suicide, the most long-lasting, serious consequences may be legal.

The legal consequences: Jail time and lifetime inclusion in the sex offenders’ registry

The aspect that may shock the parents sitting in front of you the most is that of the legal consequences of sexting. In Ireland, the United States, and Australia (at least!), sexting is a crime. Australian national law says that anyone under 18 who uses their phone or the internet to sext (meaning: to send, receive, forward, or even view nude/sexy images) is violating the law.

Some may note that their state law is different. In New South Wales, for example, people can consent to sex and to sexting at age 16. But federal law supersedes state law, so even in states such as NSW, it is a crime to sext younger than 18.

What happens when sexting involves those under 18?

Sexting can be “child pornography” or an “indecent act” if it involves under-18s. Child pornography pictures are illegal if they are: (1) asked for; (2) taken; (3) received and kept; or (4) sent, posted, or passed around. If the hypothetical daughter of the parents in session with you is only 16, she and her 17-year-old boyfriend cannot legally be deemed to have “consented” to have sex or to sext with each other. Even if it is not child pornography, it can be considered an “indecent act”. Child pornography means any picture (real or photo-shopped, videos, or cartoons) of a young person showing their private parts (genitals, anus, or breasts), posing in a sexual way, doing a sexual act, or being in the presence of someone who is doing a sexual act or pose.

What are the penalties?

The maximum penalties for child pornography can be up to 15 years in jail and being placed on the sex offender register. The maximum penalty for an act of indecency is 2 years in jail if the person in the picture is under 16, with a maximum penalty of 18 months if the pictured person is over 16.

If your hypothetical parent-clients are overwhelmed to hear this, you can give them the good news: unlike in some other countries, police have the option to not use child pornography laws. Rather, they can charge the young person with a less serious crime: posting an indecent picture, for example, which has a maximum penalty of 12 months in jail. They could also send the couple’s daughter (or her boyfriend) to youth justice conferencing, give them a warning, or let the parents or school decide their punishment. If, however, the sexting were to involve harassment and threats (such as in cases where the girl has been pressured to supply the nude photo by her boyfriend), it’s much more likely that police will press serious charges leading to sex offender registration.

The Lawstuff Australia website offers this real-life example. An 18-year-old boy texted a 13-year-old girl, asking her for a “hot steamy” picture. The girl texted back a nude picture of herself. The girl’s father found the picture on her phone and called the police. The boy was charged with possessing child pornography and causing the girl to do an act of indecency. He was found guilty of the indecency charge and was placed on a good behaviour bond. Although the girl broke the law, too, she was not charged, probably because she was so much younger than the boy that he was deemed to be more at fault (Lawstuff Australia, 2015).

Solutions: Helping the parents to help their kids

So, given how serious, widespread, and sensitive the issue is, how do you help the parents help their daughter? Or any parents help their teenagers? Kids Helpline and Lawstuff Australia both have suggestions on their sites, so suggesting the parents visit those sites may be helpful (see below). In a nutshell, you can encourage the parents to take these steps.

If the teenager has sent the text and regrets it:

  1. The teen has already done one thing right if s/he has contacted the parents about it, and they are now contacting you. You can get the parents to reinforce this by encouraging them to be understanding and let the teen know that they genuinely appreciate being told. Underscore for the parents that it is the mark of a good, solid parent-child relationship if the child has been able to come to them with something so embarrassing and ask for help.
  2. Get everyone to take a deep breath! Have the teen ask the person to delete the message and watch them do it.

If the sent image gets shared online:

  1. If their adolescent is under 18, have the parents report it to eSafety (http://www.esafety.gov.au/) or the police.
  2. Tell a teacher if the person who shared/posted it is from the same school.
  3. Get the teen un-tagged from the photo.
  4. Report the image to the service provider so that it can be removed.
  5. Report the person who posted it.

If the teen has had a sexy image sent to him or her:

  1. Establish who sent it (i.e., friend, girlfriend, boyfriend, or stranger). Depending on the ages of the people involved, the police may have to be informed.
  2. DON’T let the teen forward it to anyone (that is a crime)!
  3. Delete the message.
  4. Report the image (if it’s online, say, on a site like Facebook) so it can be removed.
  5. Privacy settings can allow the teen (or the parents) to review photo tags before they appear on the teen’s profile and their friends’ newsfeeds.
  6. Tell the person not to send anymore and block them if they do.
  7. The parents can make a report to their mobile phone company if the teen is receiving unwanted pictures or requests for them. Call the company or go to their website for details.
  8. Have the parents apply for a protection order to stop a person from contacting the teen or sending out images to harass him or her.
  9. Change the teenager’s mobile number.
  10. Complaints can be made to the Office of the eSafety Commissioner (address above).
  11. Kids Helpline and Lawstuff Australia both offer the assistance of their organisations, via phone calls, Webchats, or emails (Lawstuff Australia, 2015; Kids Helpline, 2017; Griffin, 2014; see Resources).

Discussions: the longer-term steps

At the end of the day, the fallout from sexting can be serious and is emotionally wrenching for parents to deal with, but as we noted, there are multiple steps parents can take immediately in order to do damage control. In terms of the intermediate- and long-term, there are a few more pointers to help parents help their children avoid sexting problems.

Stay in the loop with what teens are doing with technology

So many devices have Wi-Fi access these days, from personal computers, video game consoles, hand-held gaming devices, and smartphones to tablets, e-readers, and even digital audio players. Ask parents if they know what their children are doing with all of them, or whether they know with whom their children are spending time online. In all likelihood, the parents are footing the bill for the connectivity, so they have a right to know with whom their kids are communicating.  Parents can check their teens’ IM buddy lists, social networking friends, and mobile device address/contact list.

Consider placing limits on electronic communication

Get parents to check out the parental controls offered by their mobile provider. Many mobile carriers offer family plans that allow parents to limit the amount and type of text messages their kids can send. It is also possible to disable attachments on text messages.

Set expectations

Do the teens have a clear sense of what the parent considers appropriate behaviour online and through text? Do the teens know what constitutes “responsible digital citizenship”? If not, it’s better to have conversations about it sooner rather than after an incident has occurred. While conversations about sex or sexting may feel awkward and uncomfortable, it’s a lot less painful for both parties if they happen before any sexting does.  Parents must emphasise to their kids that the buck stops with them, even if they didn’t start the sexting behaviour. Once “out there”, an image can never be retrieved, and the teen will lose control. In this day and age, there is no such thing as a “private” image sent to a “private” phone number!

Have compassion; the pressures are great

Encourage parents to regard their teen’s situation with empathy and compassion. Peer pressure to conform is a powerful motivator.  Beyond that, texting can be a form of cyberbullying, which is difficult to deal with. Tell the parents, though, to remind the teen that – as bad as the pressure is to send the nude picture or to do what “everyone else is doing” – the humiliation that results from the pictures going public is hundreds of times worse (Puresight, 2011; Knorr, 2016; Lohmann, 2012).

Resources

Invite parents to check out these resources:

Kids helpline offers phone, email, and WebChat counselling:

  • Phone: 1800 55 1800
  • Email: support@kidshelpline.com.au
  • WebChat: http://www.yourtown.com.au/get-help/webchat-counselling/
  • Website: https://kidshelpline.com.au/teens

Lawstuff Australia offers both email and a number:

Commonsense Media (not an Australian site) has a sexting handbook.  Go to their site:

We can keep kids safe online, but it takes relentless monitoring and ongoing relationship with them to forestall problems.

References

  • Burns, J. (2017). House passes bill that could have teens facing 15 years for trying to sext. Forbes.com. Retrieved on 14 February, 2018, from: Hyperlink
  • Griffin, M. (2014). Column: Children don’t understand the consequences of sexting. Thejournal.ie. Retrieved on 14 February, 2018, from: Hyperlink
  • Kids Helpline. (2017). Sexting. Kidshelpline. Retrieved on 14 February, 2018, from: Hyperlink
  • Knorr, C. (2016). Talking about Sexting. Commonsense Media. Retrieved on 14 February, 2018, from: Hyperlink
  • Lawstuff Australia. (2015). Know your rights:  Sexting. Lawstuff.org.au. Retrieved on 15 February, 2018, from: Hyperlink
  • Lohmann, R.C. (2012). The dangers of teen sexting. Psychologytoday.com. Retrieved on 14 February, 2018, from: Hyperlink
  • Net Nanny. (2018). Sexting can have long term negative effects for teens. Netnanny.com. Retrieved on 15 February, 2018, from: Hyperlink
  • Peek, H. The selfie in the digital age: From social media to sexting. Psychiatric Times. 25 Dec., 2014:  Vol 31(12).
  • Puresight, 2011. The dangers of sexting. Puresight.com. Retrieved on 14 February, 2018, from: Hyperlink
  • Van Maren, J. (2016). The culture war. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Life Cycle Books.
  • Woda, S. (2015). Spotlight on sexting. Uknowkids.com. Retrieved on 14 February, 2018, from: Hyperlink