Various research reports suggests that 10-20% of teens have sent or received a sexually explicit photo in the last 12 months (some studies estimate as low as 4%, some as high as 50% - depending on how you ask the question). If we assume around 15%, this means the average sized secondary school will contain 150 -200 students who have recently sent or received a naked or semi naked picture of themselves.
Given the prevalence of this issue, we can’t bury our head in the sand. Teenagers everywhere are doing this - including the teens we work with.
Why do teenagers "sext"? Research suggests that most teens do it within a relationship - as a form of flirting or sexual play. However, some send pictures in response to pressure, harrassment or abuse and some send pictures as a form of pressure, harrassment or abuse. The research is mixed in terms of which gender sends the most photos - but we know older adolescents are more likely to do it than younger adolescents.
There are a couple of big problems with sexting. First, Australian laws as they exist today allow teens to be charged with distributing child pornography if they send or receive a sexually explicit text – even if this photo is of themselves. Being charged with distributing child pornography can lead to being labelled as a sex offender and the consequences of this are very serious. This is clearly a ridiculous situation and the laws must be changed. Nevertheless, it is a very real risk for young people, and the police are regularly called to deal with this issue.
Another big problem is pictures being sent far and wide without consent. While many of the photos sent and received by teens are originally done so with full consent of the person in the picture, follow up photos are often sent WITHOUT consent.
Here’s the kind of story I hear every week:
Tara, 17 came to see me after breaking up with her boyfriend. Tara said that her boyfriend was really upset and angry with her, because she had cheated on him with another guy at a party. Her (now ex) boyfriend had a whole lot of naked pictures of her on his phone, pictures that Tara had taken and sent to him when they were together. He had sent a message to her telling her that he had shown them to his friends. Of course the news of this went around the school in three seconds and Tara was entirely and completely humiliated. She stopped going to school midway through Year 12 and hadn’t gone back.
Photos are often copied, shared and distributed to hundreds or people, shared on social networking sites and eventually accessed by adult viewers and senders of child pornography.
How do we help teens we work with avoid this happening to them?
First – Know our reporting obligations and tell the teen about these
These vary state to state, but generally if we discover a teenager has sent or received a naked image, we are mandated to report this to both police and child protection authorities - and this is usually true, regardless of whether the teen tells us that the sext was voluntary and/or of themselves.
This is partly because we can not ascertain that the sext was actually sent voluntarily (the teen may be being pressured by an adult to do this - which of course is a form of child abuse). Given our reporting obligations, I believe we should normally tell teens about this up front - before they disclose sexting to us. In our clinics we tell teens this as part of our run through about explaining confidentiality.
Second - Tell teens about the dangers of sexting
We need to make sure teens are aware of the dangers of sexting. They need to clearly know that a) they are breaking the law and the consequences of being charged with those offences, and b) that photos sent and received can be forwarded to others without their consent and end up being seen by hundreds of people.
The best way to help teens be aware of these dangers is to have a conversation.
If you are one on one with the teen, have an ongoing relationship (ie in a counselling situation) and the topic of sexting comes up, we might be able to ask questions such as:
"How common do you think this is in teens?"
“Why do you think teens are tempted to do this?”
“What do you think can go wrong when teens do this?”.
“Would you be tempted to do this? If not, why not?”
“What would you do if you received a text like this?”
Asking questions first, means we engage teens in the conversation
Then, we can tell young people our concerns and worries about this issue. Use news reports, or google situations that have occurred so you have real data and situations to share. The two messages are:
Do you mind if I tell you the problems I see with sexting?
Can I tell you about somethings I know have happened when teens have sent/received sexts?
Third – in a school /home care context - set down clear rules
We need to tell teens that we know they may well be tempted to send a picture of themselves at some point, but that it is against school /house rules, and they absolutely must resist this urge. Remind them again of the reasons.
Don’t be vague about this, be very specific and clear and go through the consequences again. Remember teens need to hear things more than once!
Fourth – work with parents/carers to ask them to monitor their texting without unnecessarily violating their privacy
This is obviously not an easy line for parents to walk on. However, it's important to say that I don’t believe young teens should be allowed 100% privacy regarding what they do, say and hear online and with their phones. While teens are teens - with underdeveloped frontal lobes, and difficulty managing impulsivity and judging risk – they can't have 100% privacy in this potentially dangerous area.
This usually means parents must have some level of knowledge of what they are texting. This doesn’t mean they will check every text. But it does mean that occasional check ups will happen. It means that phones shouldn't generally be allowed in bedrooms with closed doors all night. It means that teens can’t put locks on their phones that parents don’t know and that parents know passcodes.
As teens get older (16 and 17 for example) it may be that more privacy can be negotiated. But this should happen gradually.
If we can discuss and talk with parents about this - then it can help protect the teens we work with.
Fifth – keep working at positive relationships with teens
Teens need adults (and not just parents) who are positive about, interested in and committed to their well being. As professionals if we can continue to provide this for them - it means they are more likely to confide in us, and come to us for help.
Showing interest in and respect for their opinions and ideas
Trying to speaking calmly and coach rather than lecture
Showing admiration and thanking them often (even when we need to look hard for things to do this for)
Understanding pressures, temptations, challenges - and forgiving and allowing mistakes
When we do these things for teens, they are more likely to have a good relationship with us, and we can help them through these kinds of tricky issues that our society now faces.
I have written an article specifically for teens on this topic. It is part of my e-book "When Life Sucks (for teens)" but given the importance of this issue I have made this chapter available free. You might like to email this, or print it out and give it to teens you work with and see what they think. It might also be a good source of conversation. Click here for the link.