Sexting: Tackling a growing problem

Written by: Karen Sullivan | Published:
Image: iStock

Plans to stop children being prosecuted for ‘sexting’ will not make life any easier for schools trying to tackle this modern phenomenon. Karen Sullivan offers some practical advice

At present, anyone found texting intimate images of themselves to others (or via any form of social media) could receive a criminal record and be included on a list with the Disclosure and Barring Service.

This includes youngsters, who run the risk of getting a criminal record and ruining their future career options if they are found to be sending sexts.

However, new ministerial guidelines to police, which are due to be approved by government and could be sent out “within weeks” advise that children who sext should not be prosecuted.

The reasoning is that this phenomenon is now considered a “normal part of modern growing up”. And indeed, it is.

However uncomfortable this may be to read, technology has changed the way that young people interact with one another, and experimentation, flirting, early sexual experiences and, as one psychologist put it, “testing their level of appeal” – all of which once involved personal encounters – now takes place online.

A recent report by the NSPCC suggests that 15 and 40 per cent of young people are involved, but other research suggests that this figure is probably much, much higher.

While I agree that kids should not be prosecuted for undertaking interaction on what is, perhaps, a new and dangerous level, now more than ever we need to keep a close eye, and make it clear to offenders that what they are doing may seem playful and fun but it is: illegal, in many cases pornographic, open to abuse, and, of course, a potentially irrevocable interplay that can fall into the wrong hands, and be seen by future employers, educational establishments and more.

One of the main dangers of this “techno sex” is that it is very easy for kids to reinvent themselves, to portray a false bravado and to give in to peer pressure in a way that they might not in person. Young people could once leave the school gates or decline an invitation to social events, and avoid uncomfortable experiences – seeking refuge in the sanctity of their own homes. The 24/7 culture of mobile phone/tablet/computer use has, of course, removed that option, and the pressure is immense.

Worryingly, too, school leaders will often have to make the call about whether to report incidents to the authorities, taking into consideration the ages of the children involved, whether or not there has been coercion, and if this is a repeat offence.

One head, who spoke to the Sunday Times, has clear and valid concerns. Rob Campbell, head at Impington Village College in Cambridge, said: “It’s a very difficult decision to make – when has the line been crossed? If a 14-year-old is in a relationship and sends a scantily clad picture of herself to a boy, is that okay? If they then break up and he distributes it, it becomes revenge porn. If I don’t report it, I might be enabling someone who then goes on to exploit girls.”

The truth is that while we can suggest to students that this type of interaction may be okay within limits, and within a healthy relationship, it is unlikely that most youngsters will have any concept of what comprises such a relationship and at its inevitable end, the embarrassment, humiliation, potential for bullying, guilt and loss of a friendship network can often be the result, leaving teenagers unprepared to deal with the fallout.

Despite many sexts being sent to close friends or girlfriends/boyfriends, 15 per cent of teens who have sent or posted nude or semi-nude images of themselves have sent them to people they have never met, but know from the internet.

Not only that, but while statistics from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy in the USA showed that nearly 70 per cent of teen boys and girls who sext do so with their girlfriend or boyfriend, 61 per cent of all sexters who have sent nude images admit that they were pressured to do it at least once.

And they share them. The same report suggests that 55 per cent of those who share, send them on to more than one person, while research from the University of Utah’s Department of Psychology found that well over 25 per cent of those teenagers who reported receiving a sext say that they had forwarded it to someone else. The potential impact of this is terrifying.

And there is more: the NSPCC research suggests that children as young as eight and 10 feel pressured to take part, which can result in long-term emotional damage and a skewed understanding of relationships and sexuality that can have an impact on our society as a whole. It can also lead to early sexual activity.

Researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch found that 77 per cent of high school students who were propositioned to sext admitted to having had sexual intercourse, and were more likely to engage in sexual behaviours.

Ultimately this is a reality that we cannot ignore, and instead of criminalising what could amount to half of the teenage population, we must instead find ways to control it, to limit the potential damage, to imbue our young people with the courage to stand up for what they believe in, and where a belief system is absent, find ways to create one.

We need to get into their heads that the ramifications may not just ruin their lives, but take them – at least four teen suicides have been linked with this phenomenon to date, and at a vulnerable stage of development, more young people are likely to succumb. What can we do? We’ll look at that in my next article for SecEd (which you find here from March 10, 2016).

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email



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