The rise of the ‘sext’


Sex-related messaging among teens is increasingly common, with three in five reporting that they have been asked to send indecent images of themselves. Hannah Crown looks how schools can best handle the rise of the ‘sext’.

Last year, a Childline survey found that 60 per cent of young people have been asked for a sexual image or video of themselves, 

40 per cent have actually created one, and 25 per cent admit to having sent one. What’s more, of that 25 per cent, a third sent the image to someone they met online but didn’t know.

In 2012, the NSPCC revealed that “sexting” had become as “common as exposure to sexual or pornographic content online” and its research found that a key reason why young people sext is peer pressure.

Its report, A Qualitative Study of Children, Young People and ‘Sexting’, states: “The problems posed by sexting come from their peers – indeed, from their ‘friends’ in their social networks.”

The study also makes a link between sexting and the fact that pornography has become “an ordinary part of daily life” for many boys. It adds that sexting is often coercive and that girls are most adversely affected. It states: “Girls suggested to us it was like a competition among the boys to see how many and which types of photos they could acquire.

“Sexually suggestive images are used as a form of ‘relationship currency’, with boys asking for them and with ‘pressures’ upon girls to produce/share such images.”

Based on qualitative research from two inner London schools, the study describes the “context of normalised sexism and sexual violence” that researchers found. 

It states: “As well as routine requests for photographs, comments about their appearance, and discussions about their sexual reputations, girls also experienced considerable pressure from boys via mobile internet technologies to perform sexual acts on/for boys.

“It is important to convey the sheer volume of requests the girls receive and the relentlessness of the pressure upon them.”

Sending a sext

Once a picture is sent, evidence shows that it is often shared. One 14-year-old girl, who was groomed online by a 42-year-old man pretending to be 17, told the NSPCC that sexts are freely available at her school: “They get sent all round school, but it doesn’t seem to stop them. People put statuses up offering videos of people touching themselves – if you message them they’ll send it to you. People see pretty much everything now.”

Richard Cotton, a school charge nurse in Stoke on Trent, said that young people often don’t realise the consequences: “Every teenage relationship goes through ups and downs and teenagers can’t really see long-term consequences – combine the two and the danger is the images will go further than originally intended.”

The vast majority of these “home-made” images end up as online pornography. In fact, 88 per cent of sexual images or videos originally posted on social networking sites or sent via text are made public on other websites, according to the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF). 

These “parasite” websites have often been created for the sole purpose of offering sexually explicit images and videos of young people. 

Susie Hargreaves, CEO of the IWF, said: “We need young people to realise that once an image or a video has gone online, they may never be able to remove it entirely.”

The law states that taking or possessing an indecent image of a child is a criminal offence and guidance from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) says that children need to be aware of this. It adds: “Although unlikely to be prosecuted, children and young people who send or possess images may be visited by police and on some occasions media equipment could be removed. This is more likely if they have distributed images.”

What can schools do?

The CEOP guidance suggests that each school should have a clear policy. It provides advice on steps to take in the event of a sext being discovered, how it should be dealt with and by whom. The guidance is tailored for a variety of situations, such as disclosure by a student or rules around searching a device.

Key questions include type and legality of the image, how widely the image has been shared, and asking if other pupils and/or young people are involved. Ensuring child protection policies are followed is a crucial part of any policy. Jane Wright, a lecturer in specialist community public health nursing at Buckinghamshire New University, explained: “Sexting is clearly linked to bullying, so it has to be included in the school’s bullying policy. 

“Emotional health and dealing sensitively with young people is obviously something school nurses are well trained in, so they should contribute both to the policies being made and the actions taken in the event of sexting being discovered.”

Ms Wright suggests setting up confidential areas on school websites or separate sites allowing pupils to submit confidential questions to a school nurse, or a text service to a school nurse’s work mobile, which can get around the “face-to-face contact that can be quite difficult for young people in these situations”. An anonymous survey may also be a way to gauge current levels of sexting, Mr Cotton advises.

One senior leader of an East Midlands school, who has seen several students come forward voluntarily to report cases of sexting, said that their success is due to the culture they have created.

He said the cases involved children from years 7 to 11 with the majority being “kids sending each other messages which might then get sent on to one of their friends”. However, he has also dealt with more serious cases where the school has sought police involvement.

He told SecEd: “(Sexting) has been a focus for us in terms of alerting students to the dangers. It’s about giving them positive choices – making sure they feel confident enough to come forward and able to use the internet to its full potential while being fully aware of its dangers.”

One of the cases he has dealt with was where a picture had been sent by a stranger to a pupil – this case is still under police investigation. Another involved a teacher finding a group of boys looking at an indecent image of a female pupil from a different school on a mobile phone. 

He added: “It was taken very seriously, the phone was temporarily confiscated, and a number of parents were involved. The boy was interviewed by police. The experience had a deep impact on them.” No charges were brought.

He says proactive approaches taken by the school include:

  • Inviting a child protection officer to talk to pupils about sexting and to hold evening sessions for parents on the subject.

  • Proactively using materials from CEOP on sexting, particularly as part of the ICT curriculum.

  • An “internet safer day” where discussions are held within vertical tutor groups on e-safety.

  • Several assemblies on the issue (as “this is something that needs to be constantly reinforced”).

He added: “I don’t want my teachers to go around having to check pupils’ phones all the time – it should be an educational issue. But if a teacher thinks there are indecent or explicit images on a SmartPhone he or she does have the power to take it from the child.”

Current government guidance on sex and relationships education dates from 2000 and as such does not reference sexting. Brook, the PSHE Association and the Sex Education Forum published supplementary advice earlier this year – Sex and Relationships Education for the 21st Century – which does include specific advice.

Ms Wright said that the patchy commissioning of PSHE and the fact it is non-mandatory has not helped the situation. She also urges schools to focus on more joint working, involving teachers, police, parents and school nurses.SecEd

  • Hannah Crown is a freelance journalist.

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